Venezuela: Supporters and Opponents of President Hugo Chavez Collect Signatures in Reafirmazo

Article excerpt

Although the signatures have been collected in Venezuela's "reafirmazo," little clarity is yet in evidence regarding the future of President Hugo Chavez. In the midst of the signature campaigns, Chavez celebrated five years in office, telling his supporters he would lead Venezuela's government "until 2013."

Supporters of Chavez collected signatures Nov. 21-24 to revoke the mandates of 37 opposition legislators. If that effort is successful, it will bolster the government's fragile majority in the Asamblea Nacional (AN), which is divided between 84 pro-Chavez and 81 opposition lawmakers. To be successful, Chavez supporters needed to collect the number of signatures equal to 20% of the registered voters in each of the 37 districts.

Opponents of the president gathered signatures Nov. 28- Dec. 1 to support a revocatory referendum, which could mean new presidential elections. The opposition needed 2.4 million valid signatures--20% of registered voters--to trigger a referendum against Chavez. The opposition also collected signatures to revoke the mandate of 36 pro-Chavez deputies.

The opposition had collected signatures in February after a two-month private-sector work stoppage failed to force Chavez from office (see NotiSur, 2003-04-25). But the Consejo Nacional Electoral (CNE) ruled in September that the signatures were invalid because they were collected before Aug. 19--the midpoint of Chavez's six-year term--as required under the Constitution (see NotiSur, 2003-09-19).

The Organization of American States (OAS) and the Atlanta-based Carter Center, which helped negotiate the agreement for the referendum drive, see it as a peaceful way to resolve the political conflict that has gripped Venezuela for more than a year (see NotiSur, 2003-06-20).

Only the constitutions of Austria, Iceland, and Venezuela allow the president's mandate to be revoked by means of a referendum, jurist Carlos Ayala told Inter Press Service. However, many other countries provide for recall referendums for lower-ranking officials.

Process called fair

Observers characterized the signature gathering as fair and transparent. "This country is finding a democratic way of solving the problem," said Gaviria at the end of the petition drive. "They really have institutions working."

Both sides must turn over the signatures to the CNE-- which they have not yet done. The CNE then has one month to verify the authenticity of the signatures and decide on whether and when to call the referendums. Venezuelans could go to the polls and decide the political fate of Chavez and the legislators sometime after March 2004.

If Chavez were recalled before August 2004, elections would be held for a new president to complete his term, which runs until 2007. But if his mandate were revoked after that date, the vice president would serve out the rest of the presidential term.

As anti-Chavez leaders encouraged their supporters to turn out to support the referendum, the president told the press on Nov. 27 that he was confident he could defeat the latest challenge to his presidency. "The opposition should know by now that the possibility of them collecting the signatures is almost zero," he said. "If the signatures are collected in a transparent and legal way...then let's go to a referendum. If they beat me in the referendum, then I'll leave. I don't have an obsession with power."

Both sides continue accusations

Following the two signature drives, the rhetoric on both sides of the political chasm continued, and both sides claimed they had surpassed the minimum required for their purposes.

"If we could give the numbers, the noise from the popular celebration would be deafening," said Deputy Nicolas Maduro and the end of the pro-Chavez signature-gathering session. He added, "We have surpassed all expectations and we see that here the people are ready to defend their government. …