Until reasonably recently, it could at least be argued that Nicolás Maduro had democracy on his side. After all, following a bad-tempered campaign and opposition calls for a full audit of votes cast, Hugo Chávez’s appointed successor had seen off MUD candidate Henrique Capriles in the election of April 2013 – by a margin of 1.5%, the closest election in Venezuela since 1968 – and had been duly sworn in as President of the Bolivarian Republic. The victory may have been a narrow one, but it was a victory nonetheless.
But the events of the past week cast doubts over Mr Maduro’s mandate, his only shield in the crises currently besetting his government and the country as a whole.
On Friday, the National Electoral Council (CNE) suspended opposition attempts to subject Mr Maduro to a recall referendum. Under Article 72 of the 1999 Constitution, a vote to recall the president is permitted provided 20% of the electorate across all 24 states come out in favour. The opposition – still doggedly lead by Mr Capriles – had gone a signature drive to get the petition over the required threshold. But recent rulings by 4 state courts opined that there was fraud in the initial round of signature-gathering earlier this year, invalidating the proceedings. In the light of these verdicts, the National Electoral Council has suspended the recall vote, pending further investigation.
So are Friday’s events the despotic thwarting of legitimate opposition or merely the slow-turning gears of political procedure? Taken on its own, the suspension of the recall process is little more than a symptom of sclerotic bureaucracy. However, this latest hindrance to opposition in Venezuela forms part of a patchwork of measures taken by the Maduro government to consolidate its position, irrespective of its fundamental political legitimacy.
On the 14th of this month, President Maduro signed off on the national budget for 2017, a document promising 8 trillion Bolívars – about $8 billion – of spending over the next budgetary year. Usually, the process for putting pen to paper on the budget would involve putting it before the National Assembly, conforming to the head of state’s constitutional obligations. But on this occasion, Mr Maduro was granted a special dispensation by the Supreme Court to allow him to bypass the legislature, on the basis that several opposition leaders in the Assembly were in contempt of court for ignoring earlier rulings. Presumably the fact that the National Assembly is controlled by the opposition MUD and represents one of the last bastions of resistance to the Maduro regime in the formal law-making process is neither here nor there.
The functionaries at the National Electoral Council have also been particularly busy of late. Not only have their labours borne fruit in the suspension of the recall process, this week also saw the postponement of elections for state governorships, which had been due for December but will now take place in mid-2017. No explicit reason was provided by the Council, but the decision does provide welcome respite for a government suffering from consistently disastrous approval ratings.
Last but by no means least was Mr Capriles’ online publication of a court order prohibiting him and several other prominent opposition figures from leaving the country. The order relates to the allegations of fraud in the early stages of the recall petition, but has been branded a nakedly political “act of gratuitous aggression” by the opposition and provoked allegations of dictatorial behaviour by Mr Maduro. By contrast, on the government side, Diosdado Cabello, vice-president of the ruling PSUV, expressed his hope that the accused “are imprisoned for their deceit.”
Inflammatory rhetoric is likely to be a feature of Venezuelan politics during the coming months (as if it wasn’t already). Notably, Mr Capriles has been upping the ante, calling for protests next Wednesday and imploring Venezuelans to “defend their constitutional rights”. But more worrying than blustering language is the observable tendency of the Maduro government to bypass essential democratic and legal processes when it deems them inconvenient. The weakness and lack of independence of the Venezuelan judicial system has been known for some years, but it is only really now that matters are coming to a head in the country that these fundamental deficiencies are being laid bare.
Venezuela now has a full-blown political and judicial crisis to add to its coterie of social and economic woes.