Constitutional Karma? Bolivarian backlash? In 2009, Venezuela’s late President Hugo Chávez started a regional trend when he amended the constitution to allow indefinite reelection. Seven years later, the country’s newly emboldened opposition is hoping to use the same legislative trick to cut his successor’s tenure short.
Last week, the opposition party Causa R floated a constitutional amendment to roll back presidential terms from six years to four years. The initiative also scraps indefinite reelection in favor of a limit of two consecutive terms.
If the bill clears congress and is ratified in a referendum, presidential elections might be held in December and President Nicolás Maduro, if he lost, would have to vacate office by January 2017 — two years earlier than scheduled.
Buckling under an economic crisis and rampant crime wave, proposals have been floating around on how to, constitutionally, edge Maduro and his socialist administration off the stage. And the amendment route has a powerful factor in its favor, said José Ignacio Guédez, the secretary general of the Causa R party: It uses the same tools — and amends the same articles — that Chávez did in 2009 to stay in power.
In short, it’s the Chávez-approved method, and the constitutional court would have a hard time opposing it, he said.
“This approach is bulletproof because we have the 2009 precedent,” he explained. And in a country where many still venerate the late leader, that might help sway hearts and minds.
A showdown between the Legislature and the executive branch has been brewing since December, when the opposition won control of congress for the first time in 17 years.
Incoming House speaker, Henry Ramos — a feisty 72-year-old — set the mood when he called for Maduro’s constitutional ouster within six months.
Since then, several ideas have been floated. Among them are a constitutional reform (a step beyond a simple amendment), a constitutional assembly (that could rewrite the entire Magna Carta as Chávez did in 1999), and a recall referendum.
In recent interviews, Ramos said he favors the amendment approach. And while constitutional scholars argue that all of the proposals are legitimate, the ruling party has other ideas.
José Vicente Rangel, a former presidential candidate and influential ruling party journalist, called the Causa R proposal a thinly veiled attempt to topple a democratically elected president. In his view, the only legitimate route is a recall referendum.
“Few times in our country has there been such a clear announcement of a coup,” he wrote in his weekly column in Ultimas Noticias. “Never have we seen such determination, albeit disguised, to subvert the constitution.”
Jesús Silva, a constitutional lawyer and university professor in Caracas, agreed, saying that the constitution provides one clear route for recalls and trying to do it through any other avenue is illegal.
“Using a constitutional amendment for the purpose of triggering a recall is to allow fraud,” he wrote. He also predicted that the constitutional court would shoot down any potential amendment.
A recall through the traditional route would pose serious challenges for the opposition. For starters, organizers have to collect signatures from at least 20 percent of registered voters. Then, more than 7.6 million people would have to vote for Maduro’s ouster (the same number or more who elected him in 2013).
If his recall came less than two years before the end of his term in 2019, it wouldn’t trigger new elections; rather, Vice President Aristóbulo Istúriz would serve out the term.
And then there’s history. When the opposition tried to recall Chávez in 2004, they failed and many claim they suffered repercussions as a result.
Guédez defends his amendment as deeply democratic. Not only does it restore the constitutional notions of “decentralization and alternating power,” but it would even allow Maduro to throw his hat in the ring for the 2017-2021 term.
“We think the nation is waiting for change . . . and the challenge right now is providing a route to make that happen,” he said. “We think that the amendment is the best way to do that within institutional channels.”
The proposal would also cover governors and mayors; and judges would see their terms go from 12 to six years.
Plummeting oil prices in a country that boasts the world’s largest reserves have the nation on the verge of collapse. Inflation is skyrocketing and shortages of even the most basic goods, including medicine, have citizens on edge. In addition, rampant corruption and crime have made Venezuela one of the most homicidal countries on the planet.
Rumors are swirling that the administration might devalue the bolivar and hike gasoline prices (some of the world’s cheapest) to try to control the crisis.
In that sense, to advocate for political changes without focusing on the country’s problems is to miss the point, said Cecilia Sosa Gómez, a former chief justice and government detractor.
“If you talk about an ouster without convincing voters that there’s an [alternative] that will elevate their dignity and guarantee their rights, then you haven’t accomplished anything,” she said.
If the reform does go through, it would be a coda of sorts for a political cycle that began when Chávez won the right to reelection — a decision that reverberated through the region.
In 2014, Chávez’s ideological ally in Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega, won the right to indefinite reelection. Last year, Ecuador’s congress opened the gates for indefinite reelection with the stipulation that President Rafael Correa sit out the next race in 2017. Later this month, Bolivians will be asked to approve a referendum that — while not allowing indefinite reelection — would allow President Evo Morales to stay in power through 2025.
Whether the Venezuelan bill will prosper remains unclear. But Sosa argues that there’s an even “less traumatic” way to foster the changes that people seem to want.
“One of the most simple solutions would be for Maduro to step down,” she said. “That route doesn’t depend on anyone but him.”