Amid looting, blackouts and national gloom, Venezuela’s opposition on Wednesday began gathering the almost 200,000 signatures needed to trigger a recall referendum aimed at ousting President Nicolás Maduro.
But even as throngs in Caracas and elsewhere gathered to sign the forms, experts warn administration foot-dragging and obstructionism could turn the exercise into a fool's errand.
At issue is the timing. If the opposition can force a recall before year's end, it would trigger new elections. If, however, the recall doesn't take place until after January, then Maduro's ouster would simply mean that Vice President Aristóbulo Istúriz would complete his term through 2019.
“A recall next year is simply fraud; a recall next year doesn't make sense,” said Miranda Gov. Henrique Capriles, a former presidential candidate who has been spearheading the effort.
But the government seems prepared to keep its foot on the brakes. The National Electoral Council, or CNE, didn't approve the paperwork needed to collect signatures until Tuesday — almost two months after the opposition requested it. And it only came after the administration's foes were planning to march on the office Wednesday.
The recall process has multiple stages and multiple choke-points, making it “very long and complicated,” said Alfredo Croes, a political analyst who produces the Venebarometro poll.
And this week provided an example of the lengths the government might go to stymie the process. Just hours after the CNE handed over the forms, the administration announced it was closing all public offices Wednesday through Friday — every week.
The government said the move is needed as it fights power shortages sparked by falling water levels at hydroelectric dams. But on the streets of Caracas, the move was read as bald politicking.
“Those free days — that's just to delay the referendum, so that the Red Guard can stay in power,” said Adrian Pérez, a motorcycle deliveryman in the capital. “Right now we have no electricity, no food, no toothpaste, no eggs — everyday things are worse.”
Pérez said that even onetime government supporters are ready to be done with Maduro.
Croes said he had “no doubt” that the extra days off were aimed at hampering the referendum.
“It's craziness,” he said. “In what country in the world do people work two days a week and have five days off?”
The administration has reason to worry. According to a Venebarometro survey of 1,200 households released Wednesday, 68 percent believe Maduro should step down immediately. Another 23 percent think he should stay “but change the economic model,” and 4 percent said “the military should take care of it.”
Asked about a recall referendum, 60.3 percent were in favor of using the mechanism to cut his term short.
Maduro claims he’s the victim of a coordinated attack to unseat him. On his Facebook page Wednesday, he called on followers to flood every media outlet and communication platform “so we can defeat this unconventional war that we’re being subjected to.”
Last week, the Supreme Court declared that a proposal by the National Assembly, which would have amended the constitution and triggered early elections, was unconstitutional. And that has left the recall as one of the few viable exits for the opposition.
During this initial phase, organizers have 30 days to present the CNE with signatures from 1 percent of the electorate from every state — or 195,721 signatures. Capriles said they will turn over the signatures Monday.
Then, the body has 20 days to verify the petitions. Once that obstacle is surpassed and a recall is approved, the opposition will have just three days to gather 3.9 million signatures, or 20 percent of the electorate. Once again, the CNE will have the task of verifying the votes.
Risa Grais-Targow, an analyst with the Eurasia Group, wrote in a letter to clients that the government will certainly try to delay the process into next year.
“The government’s strategy is probably to do the bare minimum to appear to be moving the process forward in order to contain social discontent and avoid a more acute social crisis,” she wrote. “While the more material threat to social stability stems from worsening economic problems, the environment is sufficiently delicate that the government likely wants to avoid any protest that could spiral into a more material crisis.”
There are already signs that a crisis is brewing. On Monday, the government began four-hour rolling blackouts. The measure doesn't affect the capital, but overnight Tuesday, looting broke out in several cities, according to local media.
The Associated Press said angry residents raided bakeries and other food stores overnight, and more than two dozen people were arrested for looting in the western city of Maracaibo.
On Wednesday, Capriles said the recall referendum was a constitutional escape valve that could keep the country from descending into chaos.
“I ask all of Venezuela to do whatever is needed to avoid social upheaval,” he said in a statement. “The recall is to avoid a coup.”