Chávez Says Opposition May Have Enough Signatures

CARACAS (IPS) – Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez admitted that the opposition may have gathered enough signatures to trigger a recall referendum that could remove him from power within the next few months.

The political crisis thus seems to be moving smoothly in the direction of a peaceful, electoral solution, according to analysts.

“I never said the referendum was impossible,” the president said Tuesday evening. “Perhaps they collected 2.4 million signatures or a tiny bit more, 2.5 million. Whatever the result, the margin will be small, and for the opposition it would be a Pyrrhic victory.”

Chávez referred, however, to evidence of fraud found over the weekend, when recall petition signers were invited to confirm their disputed signatures. In raids on homes and political party offices of the opposition, police found hundreds of forged national identity documents.

The president added that given the evidence of fraud, and the fact that the results of the signature “repairs” period are apparently very close, the country, “including the serious members of the opposition, the media, and international observers, should understand that we must not pressure the (election council), which must take its time to announce the final decision.”

Vice-President José Vicente Rangel told hundreds of government supporters at a rally Wednesday that “if they gathered enough signatures and the referendum is held, we will soundly defeat them.”

“The truth in this process does not lie in the gathering of signatures or in the ‘repairs’ period, but in the referendum, which is where we’re going to ‘bury’ them,” said Rangel.

The opposition needs at least 2.4 million signatures – 20 percent of the electorate – to hold a recall vote. But the election council only validated 1.9 million of the 3.4 million signatures handed in by the opposition in December, and sent 1.2 million to the signature verification or “repairs” process held last weekend.

The Democratic Coordinator opposition alliance maintains that it added 661,000 names to the list of valid signatures over the weekend, or 136,000 more than it needed.

Several leaders of parties that back Chávez said on Sunday and Monday that the necessary number of people had not come out to ratify their signatures. But they have since backed down from that position, and say they will await the announcement of the final results by the National Electoral Council, expected Friday or Saturday.

For months, the heads of the parties that support the president, which form the so-called Comando Ayacucho, said they doubted that the opposition had gathered enough valid signatures, and protested that many of the petition forms were filled in in the same handwriting, pointing to the possible forging of signatures.

Parliamentarians say that in the next phase of the recall process, a possible August referendum, the Comando Ayacucho would be reorganized and led by retired military officers with close ties to Chávez, a retired lieutenant-colonel.

The ruling coalition had hoped around 300,000 people would come out over the weekend to withdraw their names from the recall petitions. But Chávez himself said that only around 90,000 actually did so.

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter (1977-1981) and the head of the Organization of American States (OAS) César Gaviria, who headed the international observer missions that have overseen the recall process, have met extensively with the pro- and anti-Chávez factions, and expressed their confidence that all of the parties concerned would accept the election council’s final verdict.

They also described the signature verification process as “transparent”.

Chávez has stated several times in public and assured Carter and Gaviria that he will respect the electoral authorities’ decision, take part if a referendum is held, and step down if he is defeated.

Complaining that Chavistas comprise a majority on the five-member National Electoral Council, the Democratic Coordinator has not been as clear on whether it would accept a verdict that not enough valid signatures had been collected.

Chávez “has always followed an invariable pattern: he advances boldly until running into invincible superior forces, and then stages a tactical retreat,” political analyst Armando Durán told IPS.

According to Durán, who served as foreign minister and minister of information in the second term of social democratic president Carlos Andrés Pérez (1989-1993), Chávez’s mood was influenced by the relative isolation he felt at the third summit of European Union, Latin American and Caribbean leaders held late last month in Guadalajara, Mexico.

If a referendum is called, the only option open to Chávez will be to throw all of his efforts into winning, to restore his legitimacy after two years of crisis marked by a short-lived April 2002 coup d’etat, a late 2002/early 2003 two-month general strike by the opposition, and a week of opposition protests and disturbances that left 11 dead in March.

For the opposition, time is of the essence. If a recall vote is held before Aug. 19 and the president is defeated, an early election will be held, while if he loses a referendum organized after that date, Vice-President Rangel, appointed by Chávez, would complete the presidential term that ends in January 2007.

Venezuela is the only country in Latin America whose constitution states that a recall vote can be held for any elected official at least halfway through their term. The clause was inserted in the constitution that was rewritten in 1999 at Chávez’s behest.

However, the legislature failed to codify the clause, and the electoral authorities have had to do so in the midst of the ongoing political crisis.

It is not clear, for instance, if Chávez would be able to stand in the presidential elections that would be held a few weeks after the referendum, if he were to lose the recall vote.

A Supreme Court decision on the question is still pending. But a draft of the verdict, in the hands of magistrate José Delgado, would apparently authorize the president to run in the early presidential elections, Carlos Escarrá, a pro-Chávez jurist, told IPS.

“In my view, he should not be able to stand in the elections that would be held immediately after the referendum, but there are conflicting opinions, and the Court will decide in that case,” he said.

In the coming weeks, “everything will depend on the correlation of forces in the public institutions and on the streets,” the secretary-general of the centrist Movement to Socialism, which forms part of the Democratic Coordinator, commented to IPS.

The opposition alliance has called on its followers to take part in a demonstration in Caracas Saturday, in which it hopes to celebrate what it sees as an imminent call for a referendum.