Friday, January 4, 2013

VOXXI: Hugo Chavez inauguration dilemma, and Venezuelan law on succession

Hugo Chavez inauguration dilemma, and Venezuelan Law on Succession
W. Alejandro Sanchez
January 4, 2013
Originally published:

Venezuela’s ruling political party, PSUV (United Socialist Party of Venezuela), should be feeling quite good after President Hugo Chavez won yet another bid for reelection in early October (he obtained 55 percent of the vote, compared to 44 percent for opposition candidate Henrique Capriles). In addition to holding on to the presidency, the PSUV won convincingly in the December 16 regional elections for governors and regional councils.
Nevertheless, tensions are building at the PSUV headquarters and the Palacio of Miraflores. Supporters and colleagues of President Chavez have anxiously been waiting for more information on his health condition as he recovers from his most recent round of cancer surgery in Cuba. The president has been in a Cuban hospital since mid-December, recovering from a recent operation aimed to treat his reoccurring cancer that has afflicted him since at least mid-2011. According to the latest reports, Hugo Chavez’s status has taken a turn for the worse due to new complications; recent rumors say that the controversial leader is on life support.

Venezuelan law on reelections

Several articles of the Venezuelan Constitution (a Spanish version can be found here) state the protocol regarding the president elect’s ascension to power as well as legal justifications to hold new elections. For example, Article 231 explains that the head of state will be inaugurated on January 10 in front of the National Assembly. If the president-elect is physically unable to stand in front of the National Assembly he or she may take the oath of office before the Venezuelan Supreme Court.
The current dilemma, however, is that the constitution is missing a provision that would come into effect in the event the president-elect is completely unable to attend his own inauguration. The closest article that pertains to this scenario is Article 233, which states that the president must vacate his position in the event of a debilitating illness—and only if and when the medical ailment is verified by a medical board assembled by the Supreme Court and approved by the National Assembly. In the case that the illness results in a permanent absence from office (the term utilized in the constitution is a falta absoluta, in Spanish ) new elections must take place within 30 days (this clause only takes effect if the absence occurs within the first four years of the presidential term).
Vice president and interim head of state Nicolas Maduro has denied that new elections will be necessary. Several government officials have also stated that there are no plans to change the date of the ceremony, however, in statements picked up by the BBC, Diosdado Cabello, president of the National Assembly, stated that the January 10 date may be postponed. The congressman argued that laws should be interpreted in a “positive manner” and “no se puede anteponer la rigidez de una fecha a la voluntad popular” (a strict deadline cannot overshadow the will of the people). Considering that Venezuela’s Supreme Court is generally made up of Hugo Chavez-friendly judges, it is conceivable that in a worst case scenario the court could reinterpret or amend the aforementioned constitutional articles to allow Chavez more time to recuperate.

The opposition and Jan. 10

While the opposition hasn’t called for major protests to put pressure on the government, some opposition personalities have declared to the media that Maduro should call for new elections if Hugo Chavez is not in Caracas on January 10 . A reason for this deceleration may be the result of the December 16 elections.
In a December commentary for VOXXI, I mused how the D-16 elections, with a sick Hugo Chavez in Cuba, would provide an idea of what the Venezuelan population is thinking regarding its government. After the elections, the PSUV now controls the vast majority of governorships, in addition to having a majority of the legislative councils.
In fact, the opposition now only controls three out of the 23 states, as compared to the seven they occupied prior to the elections (Henrique Capriles managed to be re-elected as governor of the state of Miranda). Regional deputies are also overwhelmingly pro-Chavez as the PSUV won 186 spots compared to the opposition’s 51. This development, in addition to the vast margin with which Capriles lost to Chavez, may have alerted the opposition to the public’s less than overwhelming approval of its policies. Additionally, the opposition may be waiting until the government makes its move regarding January 10 to decide what its next step should be.
Due to Hugo Chavez’s ailment, one constant question regarding the possibility of new elections has been whether Capriles (the natural opposition candidate) could defeat Vice President Maduro (selected by Hugo Chavez to be his successor prior to his latest trip to Cuba). Capriles recently stated that chavismo is “very vulnerable” without Chavez at the helm, but so far he has not stated an intention to again run for the presidency, this time against the vice-president. Capriles has also recently tweeted that Venezuelans should not fall for the plethora of pessimistic rumors regarding the president’s health.

Hugo Chavez’s legacy

At the time of this writing, news outlets are saying that the Venezuelan head of state’s bill of health has worsened, declaring that he may be at death’s door. With less than a week before January 10, concerns regarding his health go hand in hand with a wave of analyses discussing succession and the possible actions that the government (including factions within the PSUV), opposition, and military may carry out if Hugo Chavez cannot resume command.
There is always the remote possibility that this health scare may not amount to anything in the end; with Chavez eventually recuperating and being sworn in to office. Nevertheless, even in best case scenarios, it is unlikely that he will be able to complete another six-year term (until 2019) if his cancer does not stay in remission.
As a result, succession will most likely happen sooner or later (besides Maduro, it seems that Diosdado Cabello also wants to make a run at the presidency). If this situation has proven anything, it is the fragility of Chavez’s party and government after over a decade in power—as the PSUV and leaders within the party revolve around Chavez’s persona, rather than forming a tight-knit union around their shared political ideals.

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