Venezuela's right-wing opposition coalition, the Roundtable of Democratic Unity (MUD), has officially launched its signature collection campaign to force a recall referendum this year against socialist President Nicolas Maduro.
Thousands of opposition supporters flocked to sign the petition in public squares across the country on April 27 after MUD spokespeople confirmed they had received the official go-ahead from Venezuela's National Electoral Council (CNE).
Maduro is the leader of Venezuela's pro-poor Bolivarian Revolution, having won presidential elections by a thin margin in 2013 in the weeks after the death of late revolutionary president Hugo Chavez.
But Maduro's term has been wracked by economic crisis caused by plummeting oil prices, as well as spiralling inflation and scarcity of basic goods. The government and many supporters blame the scarcity on an economic war waged by opposition-aligned capitalists, while the opposition blame government policies.
The opposition also says Maduro's administration has also failed to successfully get to grips with corruption in public institutions and worsening violent crime.
Complex but democratic
Venezuela's 1999 Constitution, drafted by an elected Constituent Assembly after widespread public consultation, is touted as one of the major democratic achievements of the Bolivarian Revolution to date. It states that all publicly elected officials are eligible to be removed from their position by popular referendum once they are midway through their time in office.
However, the procedures for carrying out such a move are complex. Officials may only be discharged from their post if the number of votes cast in a recall referendum is equal to or greater than those cast for their initial election.
Over the 30 days after the CNE's April 27 go-ahead, the opposition also has to collect signatures from 1% of all registered voters in each of Venezuela's 23 states.
In smaller or more rural states such as Cojedes, this means collecting just 2361 signatures. In bigger states such as Miranda, they will have to gather at least 20,399.
The second stage for activating the referendum requires the collection of signatures from 20% of the electorate — amounting to nearly 4 million signatures — within a 72-hour period. This process will be aided and supervised by the CNE, which will also have to verify the authenticity of the signatures against their databases.
If all the names are found to be above-board, then the electoral body will have 90 days to convoke a nation-wide recall referendum on the president's mandate.
Venezuela will face two possible outcomes if the public vote to dismiss their current president, depending on the time-frames involved. Voters will head to national elections to choose a new president if Maduro is dismissed before completing four years of his six year term. In the event that more than four years have transpired, the country's vice-president, Aristobulo Isturiz, will step into control of Miraflores, according to the country's constitution.
But opposition supporters have dismissed the idea that just Maduro would step down, demanding the resignation of the entire socialist government.
Despite their mutual agreement on revoking Maduro, opposition supporters and spokespeople are less clear about who should take his place at Miraflores.
Some observers are predicting an inter-party power struggle within the infamously fragmented coalition to name a candidate ahead of potential national elections, as well as to settle on a plan for government.
“We'll have primaries when that moment comes,” said opposition supporter Hasler Iglesias, president of the Federation of University Centres.
Information on what measures an opposition government would take is scarce, but Iglesias said a MUD administration would act swiftly to “re-found all the public powers” including the CNE and Supreme Court. Such claims have set Chavista alarm bells ringing over a possible witch hunt within public institutions should the MUD take power.
Since their landslide win at the legislative elections last December 6, the opposition has intensified its campaign to remove the government from power.
MUD legislators have put forward a number of competing initiatives to debilitate the government, including a retroactive constitutional amendment that would cut presidential terms to four years. The reform was partially quashed by the Supreme Court for being unconstitutional earlier this week.
The Venezuelan opposition's infamous approach of combing several tactics to oust the national government — including what they call “heating up the streets” — has led to uneasiness that violence could erupt as the signature collection campaign picks up steam.
As unsubstantiated rumours of ransacking and violent barricades in Zulia state and Catia, Caracas, reached Plaza Brion on April 27, signers appeared to be buoyed by the news. Their general belief is that unconstitutional street action against the government will help their cause — even if they are not officially backing it.
“There is shit going off all over the place, this is heating up,” one member of the youth wing of Popular Will whispered excitedly to another.
Reports that the CNE was also the target of a string of attacks by opposition supporters demanding petition sheets have also increased uncertainty surrounding the coming weeks.
Some of the country's most conservative forces are playing a leading role in the petition campaign, including student movements from elite universities and religious groups such as the Catholic Church.
They are also encouraging aggrieved Chavistas to sign the petition. However, the extent to which government supporters turn their backs on the current administration and align themselves with the right will likely prove pivotal in a potential referendum.
On the other side of the political divide, thousands of Chavistas rallied to the defence of the president with news of the referendum, denouncing it as a right-wing coup.
On Twitter, more than 35,000 users tweeted the hashtag #TotalSupportForMaduro as opposed to just 1500 tweets plugging the “signathon”.
On Facebook, defiant Chavistas changed their profile pictures to photos stating “I'm not signing a goddam thing” and “I refuse to sign against the homeland”.
Nonetheless, Chavismo is also divided over how to deal with the nose-dive in popular support for the government. Some Chavistas are vowing to oppose the recall referendum at all costs, others see it as a chance to regroup and re-orientate a revolution which they say has lost its way.
Isturiz, the vice-president, appears to be the favourite to run as the United Socialist Party of Venezuela candidate in the event of new elections, although no official announcements have been made.
[Abridged from Venezuelanalysis.com. Venezuela's ambassador to Australia, Nelson Davila, will be speaking at the Socialist for the 21st Century conference in Sydney, held over May 13-15, on the challenges facing Venezuela's revolution.]