With few avenues left for forcing change at the ballot box, Venezuela’s opposition, once again, says it’s planning to vent its ire against the Nicolás Maduro administration on the streets.
The announcement comes after the National Electoral Council (CNE) late Wednesday said a presidential recall, if it does happen, would likely occur during the first quarter of 2017. The timing is crucial. If the referendum is held before Jan. 10 it will trigger new elections. After that date, Maduro’s hand-picked vice president would finish out his term through 2019.
But the next hurdle will come Oct. 26-28 when organizers will have to collect 3.9 million signatures, or 20 percent of voter rolls, to trigger the referendum. Under the new rules, however, the 20 percent threshold will have to be met in each of the 24 states rather than nationwide. The opposition claims that stipulation violates the constitution. In addition, while organizers had been asking for almost 20,000 voting machines for the referendum, the CNE said 5,392 would be made available.
“This seems like a diabolical trap to delay the signing as much as possible and to dissuade the opposition from going forward with it at all,” said Saúl Cabrera, the vice president of Consultores 21, a Caracas-based political analysis firm. “And if the opposition does go ahead with the referendum, the government’s saying ‘It’s not going to mean anything anyway.’”
The coalition of opposition forces known as the MUD said it will provide details of its protest plans on Monday. But MUD Executive Secretary Jesús Torrealba said the group will pursue the referendum this year, and he said the government was playing with fire by shutting down legal avenues for a political transition.
“A massive, constitutional, peaceful and powerful protest is coming in defense of the rights of the people and the Constitution,” he told El Nacional newspaper.
Later in the day, he accused the administration of trying to create a constitutional crisis that would divide the loose-knit opposition.
“The government wants to use [Wednesday’s] announcement to create a situation where some of us accept it, others reject it, others abstain, others throw rocks and others look the other way,” he said in a statement.
The U.S. Department of State said it was “troubled” by the government’s actions and called on Maduro to “engage in a serious dialogue with both the opposition and Venezuelans from across the political spectrum.”
Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said the U.S. and its regional allies should take a tougher stand.
“I call on our State Department to stop ignoring the sanctions at its disposal and freeze the assets and revoke the visas of all Maduro regime officials responsible for human rights violations and acts of corruption,” she said in a statement.
In a letter to subscribers, the Eurasia Group, a U.S.-based think-tank, said the government is likely generate new obstacles to stymie next month’s signature drive.
“If the opposition is able to deliver (or over-deliver) on the 3.9 million signatures, it will force [the administration] to orchestrate a transition after January 10, whether via Maduro’s resignation or via a referendum,” the company predicted.
Venezuela has been caught in a deep social, economic and political crisis, and polls show the vast majority of people want to oust Maduro. The socialist administration has suggested the recall is part of a larger international coup plot.
But even forcing Maduro to step down in 2017 might be tempered by administration maneuvering.
Venezuela’s president chooses his own No. 2. The late President Hugo Chávez, for example, burned through eight vice presidents. Maduro, who took office in 2013, is already on his second vice president, Aristóbulo Istúriz.
Diosdado Cabello, a National Assembly member and a government hardliner, has suggested that if Istúriz assumes power in the wake of a recall he could make Maduro his vice president — and then resign.
Cabrera, with Consultores 21, said it’s possible Maduro might put a caretaker and bridge-builder in the nation’s top spot until new elections in 2018, but he doubts it.
“It’s the demons that usually have the upper hand when things are as radicalized as they are,” he said. “The government is telling the opposition ‘Whatever you do, we’ll still be the ones running the show, and if you don’t like it, we’ll put whoever you hate most in charge.’”