(CNSNews.com) – Venezuela’s deepening political and economic crisis sent hundreds of thousands of people into the streets of the capital on Thursday, as critics demanded the removal of President Nicolas Maduro while supporters marched in support of the socialist leader, who perennially accuses opponents of trying to mount a “coup.”
Addressing a large rally of supporters in the center of Caracas, Maduro characterized the turnout as a defeat for the opposition.
“We have defeated an attempted coup that tried to fill Venezuela and Caracas with violence [and] death,” he declared.
“This is a conscious people and will be mobilized forever,” the pro-government Telesur network quoted him as saying, adding that while Thursday’s demonstrations had passed peacefully, there were still “ambushes to dispel.”
The anti-Maduro protests drew mass support despite the detention of some opposition leaders in the run-up to the rally and attempts by the authorities to prevent some from across the country from reaching the city. (American Enterprise Institute fellow Roger Noriega said Wednesday authorities had erected “no fewer than 17 checkpoints” along the 240-mile route from the city of Barquisimeto to the capital.)
Defending an ongoing crackdown against opposition leaders, Maduro told his supporters, “I’m going with the iron hand that Chavez gave me. I am willing to defend the homeland, sovereignty and the people.”
The reference was to Maduro’s predecessor and mentor, the late President Hugo Chavez.
Seventeen years of socialism under Chavez and Maduro, coupled with a slump in oil prices, have left Venezuela’s economy a mess, with inflation at 700 percent and citizens compelled to queue for food and other basics.
Maduro’s six-year term ends in January 2019; his opponents want him gone a lot sooner than that. But an effort to collect signatures calling for a recall referendum has run into opposition from the national electoral council (CNE), which is controlled by Maduro loyalists.
Although most indications are that Maduro would easily lose a recall referendum, the road ahead for his opponents is a tough one.
Under constitutional procedures, a first recall referendum petition has already succeeded in winning the required support to move the process ahead. (The government responded by ordering the dismissal of more than 4,000 civil servants who voted for the referendum, according to the Organization of American States.)
Now a second petition is required, and this one must garner the signatures of 20 percent of voters – in just three days.
A final hurdle for the opposition: in the referendum itself, more voters must vote to remove Maduro than the number of voters who voted for him in 2013. (Maduro received 7,587,579 votes at the time, less than 1.5 percent more than his chief rival, Henrique Capriles.)
Electoral body should not be ‘a tool of political power’
Even if that goal is achieved, for the opposition, the timing of the referendum is crucial.
Venezuela’s constitution says that if a president loses a recall referendum in the first four years in office, new elections must be held for a successor.
But if a president becomes “permanently unavailable to serve” during the last two years in office – through a recall referendum, resignation or death – his or her vice president must serve out the remainder of the original term.
The current vice president is Aristobulo Isturiz, a member of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), the leftist governing party established by Chavez in 2007.
Understandably, the opposition therefore wants a referendum held before next January 10, when Maduro’s term enters its final two years. Critics see alleged stalling on the part of the CNE as designed precisely to ensure that doesn’t happen.
The CNE wants the second petition phase to take place in late October. That would mean the referendum would be held three months later – in late January.
The Organization of American States (OAS) has been urging the authorities to organize the referendum as soon as possible – and before the end of 2016.
“It is incumbent upon the national electoral council (CNE) to be a bastion of impartiality and upholder of guarantees, not a tool of political power, twisting duly stipulated deadlines or percentages of signatures collected,” OAS secretary-general Luis Almagro said this week.
He warned that failure to meet its obligations would stoke “political and social polarization” in the country.
On Thursday, former President Carter threw his weight behind the OAS call, agreeing during a meeting with Almagro that the referendum must be held by year’s end.
Carter’s intervention is noteworthy: His Carter Center has observed, and endorsed, past Venezuelan elections, including a 2004 recall referendum which Chavez survived amid allegations of fraud. In 2012, Carter called the election process there “the best in the world.”
Chavez died of cancer in March 2013, but not before handpicking Maduro as flag bearer of his “21st century socialism” project.
The former bus driver’s tenure has been marked by crises, however, and late last year he lost control of the national assembly to the opposition.
Since then, Maduro has used the courts to block attempts by the opposition-controlled legislature to pass key measures.