Caracas, Venezuela – This week the Venezuelan opposition took a modest step forward in their effort to unseat President Nicolas Maduro through a recall referendum. But the road ahead is steep and bound to be full of surprises.
“We are sure that it is perfectly possible to hold the referendum this year, but we need a lot of social pressure to force the electoral board to do its job,” said Juan Carlos Caldera, a former lawmaker from the opposition’s Primero Justicia (First Justice).
Caldera was one of the leaders who on Tuesday put in a formal request before the electoral board to activate the recall vote, a cumbersome process riddled with preconditions.
The request, which follows a formal hand-off of 200,000 signatures three months ago, now has to gather the support of at least 20 percent of registered voters or approximately 4 million people.
The opposition claims the electoral board is delaying the process in order to push the referendum to 2017, because according to law the vote has to be held this year to effectively remove Maduro from power in case the ouster effort succeeds. (If later than Jan. 1, Chavismo is allowed to name an interim president until a 2019 election).
“If rules are followed, the electoral board has until Sept. 3 to announce a date for the next step of the process, the collection of 4 million signatures, probably for between Sept. 8 and Sept. 10,” Anibal Sanchez, a consultant from the opposition’s Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), explained to FNL.
But the government still has many cards to play to delay or kill the referendum altogether.
“They could limit the points of collection of signatures to a small number of places or set them far from the most populous areas,” explained Sanchez. “That could reduce the support for the recall.”
The board could even twist the law and decide to request 20 percent of support for the recall vote in every state and not just in the whole country, which would be especially hard in historically Chavista areas.
Additionally, the government has legal ways of preventing the recall from happening, especially considering their total control of the judicial branch.
In an interview Tuesday with a state-owned TV channel, electoral board member Socorro Hernandez said that the ruling party’s allegations of fraud during the first stage of the recall process need to be investigated and could “have an impact on the next stages of the process.”
President Maduro spoke about the allegations again this week saying that the opposition presented signatures with names of dead people, minors and inmates.
Different government officials have repeatedly said that the referendum will not be held this year.
According to Sanchez, the developments in the next 30 days are crucial and, by the end of August, there should be a clear picture of the country’s near political future.
Opposition members warn that blocking a recall vote could have serious consequences.
“The government has to be careful,” said Caldera, “because people want change and if they block [the referendum] we don’t really know what could happen.”
In the meantime, the opposition coalition is calling for more rallies across the country, even though the ones held in the past few weeks showed low turnout.
The push for street protests will not falter, though, because the anti-government groups say social pressure is crucial to get the attention of the international community.
“We want the government and the opposition to sit down and negotiate a solution,” said a high-ranking European diplomat in Venezuela who asked to remain anonymous.
“We now think that dialogue between the two groups is more important than the referendum. For that to happen, the social pressure needs to be stronger,” he said.
Franz von Bergen is a freelancer reporter living in Caracas.