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The impact of Venezuela's Electoral Chamber decision

By Miguel Octavio

Given the ability of the Chavistas to lie, ignore and bypass the law and abuse their hold on public institutions, it is quite difficult to predict what lies ahead for the recall referendum. I really don’t want to get too excited and believe that because of today’s decision the recall vote will actually take place. But I will not minimize the huge impact of the decision in favor of the opposition.

First of all, the decision is clear cut, the details do not depend or not in understanding Venezuelan law, as was the case of whether the signatures were valid or not because of the same calligraphy. The headline for the Associated Press says it best: “Venezuela Court OKs recall signatures” For anyone in any country where the law is respected, having the Supreme Court say something like that has an element of finality that will be difficult to reverse. Try to imagine if in a few days the headline says “Venezuelan Supreme Court reverses on signatures”. Supreme Courts just don’t do that, so if it happens it will make the Government look bad in front of the court of international opinion which is already quite suspicious of Chavez’ Democratic spirit.

A second victory for the opposition is that the path via the Supreme Court to have today’s decision reversed is in itself very tricky. It seems quite difficult to convince anyone that the Electoral Hall does not have jurisdiction on Electoral matters, isn't? The opposition should actually concentrate its message on this point, particularly at the international level.

But going even further, the possibility that the case will end up in front of the full Court creates many problems for Chavez and his allies. A loss in that Court will be absolutely final and irreversible. Even worse, they know that at best they can only get a 10-10 vote which would ratify today’s decision by the Electoral Hall. In fact, this in itself might cause other Justices to vote against the Government feeling that the end might be near and by favoring the opposition, they can go from being scapegoats to heroes, much like Justice Martini has transformed himself in the last twelve hours.

In fact, this might be one of the most powerful effects of the decision. If people in Government and influential positions begin to be concerned that the recall may take place and Chavez will lose, they may begin jumping sides ('saltando la talanquera’ in Spanish) before it is too late. This is how autocratic Governments begin to crumble.

Justice Martini is a very good case in point. Let us not forget that it was Justice Martini himself who wrote the majority opinion that stopped the Consultative referendum proposed by the opposition with his decision on January 23rd. 2003. That day, he was the villain, today he is all of a sudden the hero. He will be forever remembered for his courageous stand today, not only in his legal decision but in his accusations against the members of the Constitutional Hall about whom he said referring to the attempt by the Constitutional Hall to take away the case of the recall referendum petition from the Electoral Hall:

"The communications pretend to conform an order dictated without the backing of any sentence, which is the reason why the Electoral Hall has all of the necessary powers to substantiate and decide, according to article 297 of the Constitution"

He added:

"I do not understand what motivation these Justices had when they pretended to take away the cases from its natural judges" or " to indicate that there was a session that never took place, like Justices Garcia and Rondon have certified. What are they trying to do? Violate the rule of law?" He also warned them that "the consequences of their acts will fall on their consciences". Not mild words from Justice Martini. His other decision will be forgotten.

The Chavez administration has played the borderline on legal issues very successfully in the last five years. By appealing to Courts for complicated issues, it has been able to roll over the institutions; controlling them and making it all appear as if it was all quite legal and democratic. His luck may have run out with this decision, which is probably the reason why the Constitutional Hall attempted to block the path of the Electoral Hall last week with its fraudulent gambit. It was a last ditch effort to stop what could become a very damaging decision for the Government and Chavez’ future.

From a numerical point of view, today’s decision guarantees that a recall would take place. The Electoral Hall added 876.017 valid signatures to the 1.832.493 already validate by the Electoral Board, giving a total of 2.708.518 valid signatures. The opposition needs 2.432 million to activate the recall vote. Additionally, the Court also ordered the CNE to add to those signatures that can be validated the ones contained in 39,060 forms invalidated by technicalities. Since each form had on average 8.5 signatures, this adds some 332.000 signatures which must be added to the total. Thus, it is virtually impossible for the Chavistas to manage to void sufficient signatures in the ratification process to stop the recall vote.

This does not mean that the road ahead is clear; it simply means that the opposition has won where it counts, on legal and Democratic grounds, without tricks. In contrast, Chavez has lost despite the many tricks and only a new set of very dirty tricks ahead will be able to change the path to the recall referendum. These tricks are coming, they are probably being plotted as I write this, but in the end, whatever is being planned will make the opposition look much better and Chavez and his cronies much worse. And that, my friends, is a big victory in itself.



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