Succession Crisis #2: Chavez’ non-inauguration: Why violate the “Chavez Constitution”?

The Supreme Court of Venezuela has just made a rather strange decision. Rather than deciding between the two possible scenarios described in the constitution for the case when a president-elect is unable to take the oath of office on the prescribed day of 10 January, they have instead pronounced a third scenario proposed by leaders of Chavez’ party: There is “no temporary absence” of Chavez, and there is “administrative continuity” (i.e., that there is no new administration since he was the previous president).

The decision by the TSJ [press conference 9Jan 2012] seems particularly amazing as it rejects the constitutional option of declaring Chavez  “temporarily absent” that would have kept Chavismo in the presidency without an election for 180 days.

This decision is just as transparently un-constitutional and invented as the rationals of the right-wing Honduran military and congress in 2009 for throwing the president out of their country in his pajamas, rather than pressing whatever grievances or charges they had against him within the framework of the constitution.  There is a habit growing in Latin America of “democracies” being unwilling to fight out political crises within the sphere of the constitution and the nation’s institutions.

Here’s the situation in Venezuela:  The vice-president and acting president,Nicolas Maduro, announced that President Hugo Chavez is too ill to return from Cuba to take the oath of office on 10 January.  The Venezuelan constitution of 1999, the “Chavez Constitution,” says quite clearly that, if the president can’t appear at his inaugural due to a “temporary absence” that he can be sworn in at a later date.  And, if it is a “permanent absence’ that the head of the National Assembly, presently Diosdado Cabello,  is to take office until elections are held within 30 days. 

There is some ambiguity, as I understand it, as to what should occur if there is a “temporary” inability of a president-elect to take the oath of office.  But, the opposition leader, Henrique Caprilles, made clear in interviews recently (e.g., 24 December; Globovision; see also El Pais, 9Jan12) that on 10 January a “new” mandate” begins.  If President Chavez cannot show up on 10 January for his inauguration before the National Assembly, then the popular will as expressed in the election which he won is not terminated.  Rather, he simply has to have the Assembly take the proper decision (i.e., that if he is only temporarily unable to take the oath, to affirm that fact and he could then take it later, within 180 days, before the Supreme Court). 

However, the Chavista-controlled National Assembly, as requested by N. Maduro and D. Cabello, instead of declaring Chavez “temporarily absent” and starting a 180-day clock running, declared he can be away for “all the time he needs and until the supervening cause shall have vanished” (i.e., “todo el tiempo que necesite y la causa sobrevenida haya desaparecido.” Trans. TO’D.  El Universal, 9Jan12

This is what the TSJ (the Supreme Court) subsequently and rapidly sanctioned. And, going farther, said that the inauguration is a mere formality, and since the president-elect is also the previous president, that there would be “administrative continuity,” so there is no “new” administration. [ibid – TSJ]. 

Why invent this notion that the president can be given permission to be out of the country for “all the time he needs … “[“todo el tiempo que necesite y la causa sobrevenida haya desaparecido”], that this is the same administration, and therefore the inauguration is a mere “formality”?

Put it this way: if there is no crisis of succession, then why avoid the constitutionally prescribed steps?  After all, this is the “Chavez constitution,” the document he wrote and which was adopted in the 1999 plebiscite. 

The reasons seems to be:

– First: If the president is temporarily absent, then there would have to be elections after the 180 days, and the President of the Assembly, Cabello, is supposed to be president until and if Chavez returns in that time to take his oath.  For some reason, Chavismo does not want this, partially because this would erode Maduro’s stature to stand in a presidental elections. There is already sufficient difficulty building support for Maduro across all factions of Chavismo that, if Cabello were to be president temporarily, it might further weaken Maduro’s base. (The fact Maduro was picked by Chavez has to do with the fact Cabello is not a popular figure, and would likely not win an election himself against H. Caprilles.  He already lost once to him when he was the incumbent governor of Miranda State in 2008.)

– Second, Chavez was a thoroughly populist leader, “El Comandante.”  To his followers, he himself is the revolution, his person is its embodiment.  As such, to suggest that he has any sort of time restriction to return else he would be replaced is a sort of sin against the sanctity of Chavez as “El Comandante.”  This is so firmly established that Cabello can declare simply, as regards the constitutionally prescribed inauguration day of 10 January: “Tomorrow the people will be invested, since the people are Chavez” [i“Cabello: Mañana el pueblo será investido, pues el pueblo es Chávez.” El Universal. 9Jan13Cabello continued, “Yesterday the hands of some [i.e., the opposition] who opened the constitution for the first time were almost burned.  Liars and hypocrites are what they are.” And warned the opposition: ”If they want to see an [aroused – expletive deleted] people in the street, they are going to see it—defending the revolution.” 

And, so, mass demonstrations will be organized on 10 January to establish the “popular will” as to the meaning of the constitution.  This populist demagogy asserts the popular will, defined by the leader who brings the people to the streets, as the true interpretation of the constitution.

But, fourthly, and this is perhaps the fundamental reason: Chavez never built his PSUV party with a really collective leadership, only with the overarching force of his will and charisma.  He never allowed another leader of Chavismo to attain sufficient respect in the eyes of the masses to be accepted as a popular successor to himself.

For now, whatever dissonances and conflicts might exist inside the PSUV, no one will challenge Maduro or Cabello while Chavez is mortally ill. It would be unseemly, and the first would be castigated for breaking unity.  Nevertheless, this constitutional invention by the chavista-controlled National Assembly, as blessed by the Supreme Court, indicates that the confidence of Chavismo succeeding without Chavez must be considerably less than it appears to be on the surface.

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