Democracy in Venezuela

On the human level, there is a lot of sympathy for Hugo Chávez in his battle against an unspecified cancer in a Cuban hospital. On the political level, however, his loyal supporters in the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) and the Venezuelan government may be doing the cause of democracy in that country something of a disservice by seeking to interpret the national constitution as they are with regard to the postponement of Mr Chávez’s January 10 inauguration.

According to Article 231 of the Venezuelan Constitution, “The president-elect shall take office on January 10 of the first year of his or her constitutional term, by taking an oath before the National Assembly. If for any unforeseen reason, the President of the Republic cannot be sworn in before the National Assembly, he or she shall take the oath of office before the Supreme Court.”

The PSUV-dominated National Assembly has unsurprisingly accepted the government’s argument that since there is no reference to a specific date for taking the oath before the Supreme Court – or Supreme Tribunal of Justice (STJ) as it is officially known – it can be done at a later date. The legislature has also approved the open-ended absence of the President to allow him time to recover from his illness. It is a very humane ruling, but is it, strictly speaking, legal?

The STJ, whose judges are appointed by the National Assembly, has equally unsurprisingly ratified this decision, ignoring opposition demands to declare it unconstitutional. And external validation has come from the Secretary General of the Organization of American States, José Miguel Insulza, who has stated that the OAS “fully respects, and how could it be otherwise, the decision of the constitutional powers of Venezuela.”

The opposition Table of Democratic Unity has, however, written to Mr Insulza, claiming that the developments in Venezuela constitute a “violation” of the constitution, which provides for the temporary or permanent absence of the president. In the case of a temporary absence, the president of the National Assembly would assume the leadership of the country for a period of 90 days (some reports indicate that this can be extended for an additional 90 days). If the president dies or is “permanently incapacitated” either before he takes office or in the first four years of his six-year term, then new elections must be held within 30 days.

Whether or not Mr Chávez is permanently incapacitated, few in Venezuela appear willing to exercise such political brinkmanship at the moment. Opposition politicians are therefore contending that the constitution is clear that January 10 marks the end of one presidential term and the beginning of another. In this context, Vice President Nicolás Maduro, who is de facto the acting president, and other ministers appointed in Mr Chávez’s previous term should no longer hold office. And with the president-elect having to miss his inauguration because of illness, they also argue that for the postponement to be legal, the National Assembly should have declared a “temporary absence” with an interim presidency established under the president of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, a close ally of Mr Chávez.

The government is countering that since Mr Chávez was already president at the time of the inauguration and that since this is a case of re-election, he is still for all intents and purposes President of the Republic. The desire to maintain some sort of continuity of leadership is understandable given that a power vacuum might herald a possible descent into factionalism and in-fighting within the governing party and national instability.

What, however, tends to undermine the government’s justification for its chosen course is, as Democratic Unity puts it, the “nonsensical reasoning” that Mr Chávez is fully exercising the functions of president, in spite of being out of the country for more than a month, virtually invisible and unheard, with his actual physical condition shrouded in secrecy.

Even if the government may be only putting off the inevitable while it plays for time to secure a manageable transition, it would do better to be more open with the people of Venezuela and Venezuela’s friends in the region about the true state of Mr Chávez’s health. And it would better serve the evolution of democracy in Venezuela by not appearing to manipulate constitutional norms, lest it give the impression that leftist/revolutionary governments harbour anti-democratic tendencies.

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