The request for a recall referendum against Nicolás Maduro that took place in January 2022 has left more doubts than certainties as a result. The repeated complaints of a lack of democratic and institutional guarantees in a context of worsening humanitarian, political, and human rights situation coincided this time with the opposition electoral victory of the Barinas state government, a historic bastion of Chavismo. It was amid the tension between what was possible and what was necessary in the electoral field that a new proposal emerged fragmenting the opposition, the recall referendum against Maduro, which requires clarifying what happened.
How was the recall referendum process activated?
On January 10, 2022, Nicolás Maduro reached the middle of his presidential term (2019-2025), which allowed, according to the Constitution, to activate the recall referendum against him, regardless of the unconstitutionality of his term as president of the Republic.
The organizations Movimiento Venezolano por el Revocatorio (Mover), Todos Unidos por el Referendum Revocatorio, Derecha Democrática, as well as the MIN Unidad party, presented the respective request to the National Electoral Council (“CNE”, in Spanish), in an attempt to recover the electoral path following the opposition victory of the government of Barinas, despite the absence of conditions that ensure free, democratic, and transparent elections in Venezuela.
What requirements were imposed for the process?
Unlike 2016 when the CNE asked to collect 1% of the voters’ signatures to “legitimize” the petitioners for the recall, carry out audits of the signatures under its own methodology, among other obstacles, this time the CNE had no intention of delaying the process. The strategy turned out to be the opposite: speed it up so much that it was impossible to collect the signatures.
On January 21, the CNE issued the terms and conditions requiring the collection of more than 4 million signatures in 1,200 voting centers during January 26 within a period of 12 hours. Rector Roberto Picón, who represents civil society in the CNE, withdrew his vote from the decision: “Five voters would have to be processed per minute, for 12 hours, in all the machines in the country, with no margin of error; without time to notify the citizens of the collection points (…)”.
What the CNE did demand, as in 2016, was the unconstitutional requirement to collect 20% of signatures per state, when it should have been based on the national total of voters. The norm establishes that proportion of the signatures must be collected according to the corresponding constituency. Being a national consultation, the percentage of signatures should not be by state. It would be enough for a state to have less than 20%, even if many others had more, to annul the entire process.
This race against the clock ignored the deadlines established in the internal regulations of the CNE that informs the period of 15 days to define the date of the electoral event, as well as other logistical aspects such as the voting centers according to geographic and population variables, in addition to granting up to 3 days, without time limitations, to collect the required signatures.
How did the 12-hour day unfold?
According to the organization Acceso a la Justicia, “the day was marked by the lack of information at the signature collection points, the delay in setting up the centers, the aggression against press workers, as well as the mobilization of supporters of the ruling party, especially public officials and workers, who came to express their support for Maduro.” Days before, the vice president of the ruling party, Diosdado Cabello, had threatened to request the signatures to find out who would vote against the government.
It should be remembered that the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, in the Rocío San Miguel et al. Case, condemned the Venezuelan State for having used the list of applicants for the 2004 recall referendum against former President Chávez for purposes of persecution and political discrimination. In that case, the victims were fired from their public jobs.
What was the result of the process?
As expected, the signatures could not be collected. In the framework of the opening act of the activities of the judiciary in 2022, Nicolas Maduro assured that “the opponents failed again (…) the right-wing extremist (…) but it is their fault (…) The CNE gave all the conditions (…) A whole day in which they barely had to collect 20% of the signatures”.
This process of the CNE in clear advantage to Nicolás Maduro is part of the severe restrictions that exist in Venezuela to guarantee democratic and credible electoral processes.
And now what’s next for the international community?
Venezuelan organizations have documented the profound crisis of democratic institutions that affects Venezuela and that has its roots in the interference of the Executive Power in other public powers and that has resulted in the absence of the rule of law and democracy.
The failure to hold democratic elections is a violation of human rights in itself, while holding them is an essential condition for overcoming the multidimensional crisis. It is fundamental that the international community continues to advocate at all levels to generate structural conditions leading to authentic elections. The re-institutionalization of the electoral and judicial powers and the restoration of democratic guarantees for all opposition leaders and parties constitute two of the structural conditions. For this reason, the coordinated and sustained support of the States in the continuation of the political dialogue pushing for advances in the necessary reforms is a demand that has to be re-promoted strategically.