Venezuela’s Presidential Transition
7 Mar 2013
The death of President Hugo Chávez casts a shadow over a polarised Venezuela whose immediate political stability cannot be taken for granted. In extending its condolences to the government and people, Crisis Group calls on all sides to respect the constitutional framework and act prudently in order to avoid violence in what may prove a tense and difficult transition to the post-Chávez era.
Re-elected in October, Chávez was too ill to take the oath of office in January. Electoral procedures and succession rules are clear. The constitution (Article 233) provides that if a president dies before taking the oath, the National Assembly president becomes caretaker; if a president dies after inauguration and in the first four years of a term, the vice president becomes interim president. In both cases, a new election must be called within 30 days. The Supreme Court ruled on 9 January that a formal inauguration of President Chávez’s new term was not necessary, paving the way for Vice President Nicolás Maduro to take the interim reins.
The greatest responsibility thus rests with Chávez’s chosen successor. While the emotion of the deceased president’s followers is understandable, Maduro’s address immediately prior to the announcement of Chávez’s death, during which he was flanked by the cabinet, the military command and the twenty state governors belonging to the ruling party, was disturbing. Rather than calming the waters, he suggested the opposition may have been responsible for the president’s cancer. Most troubling, he spoke in the name of the “civilian-military command of the revolution” – the unelected collective leadership, with no constitutional status, that has taken over from Chávez.
Notably absent were representatives of the Supreme Court and other branches of government that during the Chávez presidencies have been mostly reduced to appendages of the executive. These institutions should now be strengthened so as to ensure the current crisis is resolved constitutionally. The terms of seven Supreme Court judges and three National Electoral Council members have expired or are about to. The appointments of their replacements are overdue and require a two-thirds National Assembly majority that neither side enjoys. The government and opposition must seek swift consensus to replenish and guarantee the independence of these bodies, both of which are crucial for a fair presidential election.
Crisis Group welcomes the vice president’s call for “no violence or hatred”. Government and opposition share responsibility for avoiding bloodshed by insisting their followers neither provoke violence nor allow themselves to be provoked. Maduro has a special duty to ensure armed government supporters comply. He has announced deployment of security forces in the big cities to ensure calm; this should be done without discriminating between sides. The 125,000-strong government militia, a politicised branch of the armed forces, should be kept off the streets.
Venezuela cannot afford an extra-legal political confrontation with a real risk of violence. Elections should be free, fair and held in conditions allowing equal competition. In the polarised environment, the government that emerges will need to surmount severe challenges if it is to restore and protect the independence of rule-of-law institutions and cope with serious crime and economic and social difficulties. This should be a goal shared by those who treasure President Chávez’s legacy and those who opposed him.
The international community – in particular Venezuela’s neighbours and other regional partners – should press for a peaceful transition and signal clearly they will not condone unconstitutional acts.