This post is a guest contribution by Laura Gamboa from Utah State University and Raul A. Sanchez Urribarri from La Trobe University, Melbourne.
For a couple of years now, Venezuela has been going through a severe crisis: it has the world’s highest inflation, increasing scarcity, rising crime and deepening authoritarianism. In order to address the crisis, the coalition Mesa de Unidad Democrática (MUD) –which groups the country’s most important opposition parties and won the 2015 Legislative elections—has been pushing, since June, for a recall referendum against President Nicolas Maduro. After allowing different stages of the referendum to move forward, on October 21st, the Venezuelan Electoral Council (CNE) suspended the process. This controversial decision followed a series of lower courts’ rulings in the states of Carabobo, Apure, Aragua and Bolívar, in response to lawsuits introduced by ruling-party (PSUV) governors accusing the opposition of committing fraud in earlier steps of the process, that had already been verified and accepted by the CNE. Moreover, after this decision, several opposition leaders were barred from leaving the country by another judicial order. These moves garnered condemnations from the opposition and the international community, fuelling fears that Venezuela is on the path of becoming a full-fledged dictatorship.
How Did Venezuela Get to the Recall Referendum in the First Place?
For several years now, Venezuela has been a competitive authoritarian regime. The government has a nominal commitment to liberal-democratic institutions, including elections, freedom of expression and association, independent courts, and so forth. However, as several observers and scholars of Venezuelan politics have shown, the regime systematically manipulates and restricts dissent. This trend has become even worse under President Maduro, the less charismatic successor to President Hugo Chavez (who replaced him in 2013 after his death). Under Maduro’s rule, the regime has become even more autocratic. It has imprisoned political opponents with the collaboration of a politicized judiciary, circumvent the authority of democratically elected officers and, more worryingly, increased the presence of the military in the government causing great concern at home and abroad.
In the midst of the worst economic and security crisis that the country has seen in decades the opposition has taken important steps towards regime change. Because it is a competitive, rather than a fully authoritarian regime, in Venezuela, defeating the government via elections albeit hard, is still an alternative. Building on a string of successful inclusive alliances, and having been accustomed to solving their differences through functional internal mechanisms, the once heavily-fragmented MUD now poses a serious threat to Chavismo’s electoral dominance. In December 2015, they won two thirds of the National Assembly; they control some of the most important municipal and state governments in the country, and there is a strong likelihood that they could win even more posts in the next ‘regional’ elections, given Maduro’s lack of popularity and the PSUV’s low numbers in recent polls.
MUD’s most serious threat, however, has been the recall referendum –a constitutional provision that allows 20% of the electorate to request the removal of an unpopular President. Up until a couple of weeks ago, the government’s response to this threat had been to delay the referendum. In the past months, the CNE engaged in a series of dawdling tactics that slowed down the process, taking considerable time to organize a preliminary signature-collection needed to activate the referendum and to make key decisions regarding its schedule. This is unsurprising, since the CNE’s neutrality has long been perceived as compromised by the opposition and international observers (all members but one are perceived as pro-government), and so has been the Supreme Court’s (notorious for its activist protection of the government’s interests.)
These tactics make sense as a power-preservation strategy: According to article 233 of the Venezuelan Constitution, if the referendum took place before January 10, 2017, Maduro would have had to resign and call for elections. If it happened afterwards, he would still have had to resign, but his vice-president could finish his term (2013-2019). The fact that the referendum would be delayed until 2017 was very likely from the onset. Although the MUD had been working hard to hold the referendum in 2016, it was quite possible that the CNE and other state institutions (particularly the pro-government Supreme Court) could delay it long enough to be held after January 2017. Thus, the move to stop the electoral contest is particularly puzzling, given that the delaying tactics appeared to be a less costly mechanism for Chavistas to remain in power.
Although blocking the referendum raised concerns, so far, the government had gotten away with an ever-feeble, yet still important, “democratic façade.” Although Chavismo has become more authoritarian after Chávez passed away, and its legitimacy has been significantly eroded in recent months, it has been difficult for the opposition movement and its allies to build support against the regime internationally. For a long time, the government had substantial electoral legitimacy at home and abroad: Chavismo won most elections under Chavez’s rule, accepted the results of the legislative elections in 2015, and frequently strived to nominally comply with constitutional norms, in order to keep appearances. Hindering a recall referendum that, clearly most Venezuelans want, falls outside this trend, and could undermine the government’s already weakening international legitimacy.
Additionally, the referendum is a constitutional and peaceful mechanism to remove Maduro from the presidency and commence a transition to democracy. Unless the economic and security situation improves overnight, stopping the referendum risks political violence, that could end in a forceful removal from power, as the opposition movement might resort to non-legal means to increase pressure on the incumbent regime. In light of these costs, and the fact that the government could have manipulated the electoral rules just enough to push the referendum beyond January 2017 and stay in power, why stop the process altogether?
There are at least two non-exclusive reasons that seem to be behind the move by the authorities to stop the referendum. First, the Maduro regime is trying to increase its leverage for a dialogue with the opposition, pushing them to negotiate concessions in exchange for regime change (such as amnesty, guarantees for political participation, assets protection, and so forth). Before October, there were few visible attempts to initiate negotiations between Chavistas and the MUD. Yet, these attempts were unsuccessful, due to strong criticism within the opposition coalition from a sector that until now –at least openly– refuses to negotiate with the government.
Secondly the regime might want to stop the referendum in order to avoid a transition to democracy altogether. Several key PSUV leaders have denied the possibility of a referendum, including Maduro himself, former chair of the National Assembly Diosdado Cabello, and others. More worryingly, this move could, reflect changes inside the government coalition, in particular the strengthening of hardliners and the already powerful military. It is well known that the latter has benefited immensely from the regime, receiving major economic benefits from their presence in major state operations –including the state-owned oil company PDVSA—and has been able to run corruption and drug trafficking schemes with impunity. A removal of the current Maduro regime,, regardless of whether it happens with a referendum or not, would likely deprive the military from such benefits. Additionally, officers could face criminal prosecution in a future regime. Hence, the military establishment might feel it has more to lose than to gain from a successful transition to democracy. It might be in their best interest to stop the recall referendum. Unlike the civilian faction of Chavismo, which fears an uprising or a coup, the armed forces have direct control of weaponry, military staff and even members inside the courts. They can engage in repression and clamp down on any potential social mobilization or protest.
Despite Maduro´s recent attempts to engage in a dialogue with the opposition, the mentioned worrisome scenarios cannot be discarded. Until a clear commitment to the referendum is made and an institutional path to regime change is preserved and respected, the suspension of the referendum might well block the possibility of a peaceful transition to democracy.
If the Referendum’s Path is Blocked, What is Next?
Consistent with the opposition’s non-violent mixed strategy of protests and elections, its response to the government’s decision to stop the referendum has been twofold. First, it called for pacific demonstrations asking the government to return to a “constitutional path,” replace justices and members of the CNE, and allow the referendum or early elections to take place. Second, some of its leaders agreed to participate in a dialogue with the government, with mediation of the Vatican and UNASUR. Although the talks are currently in course, for the time being, they have established a venue for discussion and negotiation between the government and the MUD.
The opposition’s strategy, however, is fraught with risks. On the one hand, the demonstrations could turn violent and give the government an excuse to call off the dialogues and escalate repression. On the other hand, the dialogue could be used by the government to catch its breath and stifle the momentum the opposition has had since last year, allowing it to postpone the referendum, creating more tensions within the opposition coalition, and eliminating the only escape valve available to channel popular discontent in Venezuela so far. The fact that the dialogue could backfire and strengthen Maduro’s embattled government, is in fact a possibility that seriously worries an important sector of the opposition and even some external observers.
Whether this happens or not, will largely depend on the international community willingness to pressure the incumbent government to negotiate, as well as the ability of the opposition to remain united, use the street protests strategically to increase the pressure for an agreement, and –simultaneously—accept some concessions towards the Chavista regime. A proper analysis of the dialogue process, will be contingent on how the coming days unfold. In the mean time, it behoves comparative scholars and international observers to follow the crisis in Venezuela and pay close attention to its development and still uncertain prospects.
 Corrales, Javier. “Autocratic legalism in Venezuela.” Journal of Democracy 26.2 (2015): 37-51.
 Kornblith, Miriam. “Chavismo After Chávez?.” Journal of Democracy 24.3 (2013): 47-61.
 Sanchez Urribarri, Raul A. “Courts between democracy and hybrid authoritarianism: evidence from the Venezuelan Supreme Court.” Law & Social Inquiry 36.4 (2011): 854-884, Corrales, Javier. “Autocratic legalism in Venezuela.” Journal of Democracy 26.2 (2015): 37-51
 Corrales, Javier “Explaining Chavismo: The Unexpected Alliance of Radical Leftists and the Military in Venezuela under Hugo Chávez” in Ricardo Hausmann and Francisco Rodríguez eds. Venezuela Before Chávez: Anatomy of an Economic Collapse. Univerity Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2014.
 Trinkunas, Harold A. Crafting CivilianCcontrol of the Military in Venezuela: A Comparative Perspective. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011.