The new referendum regulations are terrible. Terrible, because they violate the spirit of what a referendum is supposed to be. They make it complicated, cumbersome and almost impossible to gather sufficient signatures to recall any public official. Only if the voters are extremely upset or disappointed will a recall vote ever be possible in Venezuela given these new regulations. Simply allowing only four days to gather the required signatures is absolutely ludicrous and, in my mind, goes against the spirit of what a recall referendum should be. Moreover, publishing the National Identification number of each and everyone that signed the petition for the recall, is a limitation of the right to privacy in a country where political cronyism is the rule of the day, where a large fraction of working and voting Venezuelans work for the Government and where politics influences who is hired for low paying Government jobs. Finally, the idea that each and every signature in the petition will be checked until the minimum number of people that is required is validated, is simply an insult to technical concepts. It is obvious that sampling would suffice, but the regulations are meant to impede the presidential referendum against Hugo Chavez from ever taking place.
And all of the above is what may make these regulations great in the medium term, if the recall referendum against President Hugo Chavez is ever held. While I am a believer that the Constitution is meant to be respected, Chavez’ 2000 Bolivarian Constitution is absurd, in that it pretends to introduce the concept of participatory democracy to all levels, allowing all public officials to be recalled whenever a certain percentage of signatures is gathered in a petition. The same would be true of consultative referenda on any issue that the public may feel is important.
While the idea of a participatory democracy like that may be appealing at first sight, it is just too simplistic. In a country like Venezuela, it could be used by the opposition to create constant uncertainty and instability. Imagine this: Every single Monday for a year, the opposition hands in a petition for a recall referendum against one Government official. According to Venezuelan laws, the request for the referendum has to be handled within a certain time frame, forcing the Electoral Board to hold a recall referendum against the Government essentially every single week for the next year. Of course, the Government could counter these actions by the opposition doing exactly the same, creating even more instability. Thus, the country would be constantly immersed in an electoral carnival, where each side would hail its victories or minimize its defeats every Sunday. This would also be very costly process, consuming time and keeping the attention focused on politics rather than on working for the country (As if politicians needed more distractions).
And that is why these regulations may turn out to be great in the end. Without them, the Venezuelan Constitution would have had to be rewritten sometime down the road, to eliminate the dangers of this misconceived form of democracy. But the way they stand now, each time either the Government or the opposition wants to hold a referendum it has only four days to gather all of the required signatures, which in my opinion will usually be quite difficult. This will require a highly motivated volunteer force, excellent funding and a strong interest on the part of the electorate to recall the candidate or have a vote on an issue. Thus, the overregulation of the referenda in the end may turnout to be a blessing in disguise, forcing politicians and public groups to think twice about having a referendum and only having one when the issue is extremely important or when the electorate is sufficiently disappointed with an elected official. This is what is happening today. A large fraction of Venezuelans is extremely disappointed with Hugo Chavez, his Government and all their failed promises. Even then, I believe that the hard part will be to get the signatures in only four days and not to get the votes on the day of the referendum. There are simply too many limitations and huge possibilities for intimidation and interference. After gathering the signatures, the recall referendum itself will seem extremely easy. As usual, this is an example of the true nature of the Chavez revolution. The Constitution was written at the height of Chávez and his MVR’s popularity, nothing could go wrong, their popularity would always be with them, so they created a fantasy democracy, where referenda would be held to expand and extend their control over the country and its political system. Now this is all gone, so these set of terrible, but yet great regulations were introduced, in order to limit the power of what they thought once would be a powerful weapon: participatory democracy.