Francisco Toro is executive editor of the Caracas Chronicles news site and a contributing columnist for Post Opinions.
Venezuela has just experienced something extraordinary. On Sunday, some 7.5 million Venezuelans around the world took part in an unofficial referendum. With 95 precincts reporting as of this writing, 7,186,170 of those who voted overwhelmingly rejected the government’s plan to rewrite the constitution, urged the armed forces to safeguard the existing constitution, and approved a transition government to return to full democracy. The government refuses to recognize the vote.
By comparison, 7.7 million citizens voted for the opposition in the country’s last national election, two years ago — a number that translated into a two-thirds majority in the parliament. The government managed only 5.6 million votes — and its popularity has steadily fallen since then.
The National Electoral Council, Venezuela’s official election agency, had nothing to do with Sunday’s referendum. Instead, the vote was organized on the fly by groups of volunteers: In just a couple of weeks, they set up 2,300 polling stations from the Amazon to the Atlantic coast. And their efforts weren’t restricted to the homeland. They also organized worldwide, setting up voting centers for expatriates in countries as near as Colombia and as far as Uganda.
But why didn’t they choose to go through official channels? That was never really a viable option — and understanding why helps explain why Venezuela finds itself in its current predicament.
Since it lost control of parliament in the national vote in December 2015, the increasingly authoritarian government seems to have concluded that democratic elections are a luxury it can no longer afford.
Venezuela’s constitution gives voters the right to recall their president if they collect enough signatures to do so. But when the opposition launched a drive to do just that early last year, the official National Council turned what might have been a straightforward campaign into a Kafkaesque 10-month ordeal, eventually rejecting the recall request on a technicality. Along the way, the Electoral Council gave the lie to its claims of independence — at one point throwing out thousands of signatures requesting the drive because people had misspelled the word “president” on the form.
This year the government decided to go on the offensive. Struggling to turn back the tide of protests, the authorities decided to call a Constitutional Assembly to rewrite the constitution and run the country. But they faced a daunting challenge: winning a majority in elections to that Constitutional Assembly when a vast majority of Venezuelans loathe it. To square this circle, the government proposed an insanely complicated election that vastly over-represented the areas where it still retains support.
Then the most amazing thing happened: The slowpoke Electoral Council — the same one that took 10 months to consider (and reject) last year’s recall — morphed suddenly into an administrative sprinter. The Electoral Council announced itwould have no trouble putting together an election for the 545-member body in a little under two months. Even worse, it decided to hold the election without allowing citizens to declare whether they wanted this Constitutional Convention in the first place — even though this requirement is spelled out in the constitution. The government ignored this point precisely because it knew it would almost certainly lose.
The upshot is that there’s scarcely anyone in Venezuela who genuinely considers the “official” Electoral Council anything more than a government sock-puppet. The National Assembly — though rendered almost totally powerless by the pro-government Supreme Court — realized it had to push back. Hence the idea of calling a “popular consultation” vote, convened but not funded by the opposition-dominated parliament. In the spirit of a constitution designed specifically to deepen people’s participation in politics, it was entirely organized and funded by regular people on a worldwide basis.
The referendum they delivered turned into an amazing explosion of citizen energy: Volunteers improvised voting centers, ballot boxes, logistics, site security, everything. Citizens aghast at the country’s authoritarian slide turned out in millions to stand patiently in line to vote — even though they knew the government won’t recognize a vote that wasn’t organized by the Election Council, which it can control.
Amazingly, with just a handful of exceptions, the vote was orderly and peaceful — no mean feat in a country that has been racked by violent protests over the past four months. Millions of people who had stopped turning out to protest for fear of being tear-gassed, or worse, came out to register their rejection of the government’s dictatorial drift.
The National Assembly now has a clear mandate to disregard the government’s call for a Constitutional Assembly. The government may not want to heed it, but neither can it expect to match the turnout the opposition achieved Sunday. If fewer than 7.2 million people turn out to elect the government’s Constitutional Assembly on July 30, the body’s lack of legitimacy will be obvious from day one. And that is highly likely to be the case, given the government’s extreme unpopularity right now.
The bottom line is that the government isn’t strong enough to impose outright dictatorship on the overwhelming majority of Venezuelans, who vehemently oppose that plan. Close off access to “official” ballots and they’ll vote on their own nonetheless. We’re stubborn people, and we’re not going down without a fight.