Constitutional crisis in Venezuela

Tension permeates the political scenes in Venezuela when Maduro acts upon a bold new initiative to nullify the opposition-controlled National Assembly and orders the creation of a new  Constitution. The president of Venezuela- Maduro- claims that the Constituent Assembly and their reformed Constitution will resolve the tensions in the country and promote the economy (Maduro, 2017). However other authors such as Richard S. Kay,  and Pedro Rosas argue that it is the Maduro government  and the Supreme Tribunal of Justice in Venezuela that catalyzed the corruption in 2017 when they took over the legislative powers of the National Assembly( Kay, Rosas, 2017).

Maduro’s intrinsic desire to maintain his reign is clearly evident in his new decree as it violates the principles of Democracy and Constitutionalism (Dywer, 2017).  Despite Maduro’s belief that he has removed the “threat” of the opposition towards his presidency and is “restoring peace”, his unjust removal of the National Assembly is a sign of Venezuela slipping away from democracy, and instead, sinking towards authoritarianism. Specifically, this paper will argue that Maduro’s imposition on absolute rule by nullifying the opposition-controlled National Assembly and allowing a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution has arguably led Venezuela to descend into the worst democratic crisis in their history.

In March 2017, Maduro sidelined the opposition-controlled legislature, the National Assembly, by ordering the creation of a new legislative body: the Constituent Assembly. Their mandate was to rewrite and reform the Constitution. This came as a surprise to many because Maduro has always praised the 1999 constitution which was drafted and passed when his mentor, President Hugo Chavez, was in office (BBC, 2017). The difference is, however, that President Chavez launched a referendum to ensure that he has the support of the majority of the population while Maduro initiated the decree irrespective of the population’s approval (Ellsworth, 2017).

In 1999, Chavez’s Constitution implemented significant changes such as extending the presidential term from five to six years; as well as unifying the two chambers of the National Congress into a National Assembly . Maduro claimed that he made this decision for the sole purpose of “restoring peace” and to “let the sovereign people impose peace, harmony and true national dialogue” (Maduro, 2017). Supporters of the new decree believe that the Constituent Assembly will bring stability and a resolution to the country’s corruption (Melimopoulos, 2017). Maduro’s mandate was implemented amidst a crisis; protests and clashes led to

dozens of Venezuelans killed and harmed. The National Constituent Assembly was created in hopes of transforming the state and creating a new legal system, thus drafting a new Constitution.

In 2016, when the opposition won the majority of seats in the National Assembly, Ramos Allup, the president of the National assembly proclaimed that they were not there to pass laws but to “get rid of Maduro and his government” thus declaring themselves in rebellion against executive power . In a Democracy, if the Congress or Parliament did not concern themselves with passing laws but to overthrow the elected president, the country would face serious economic and security problems- resulting in political gridlock and institutional crisis (Vyes, 2020). Supporters of the Maduro Government thought this to be corrupt; Mauro’s wife, Cilia Flores told local media that the National Assembly believed that they were “crazy, and thought they could overthrow President Maduro…the people want peace and this stability will be given to us by the Constituent” (Melimopoulos, 2017). With the restricted immunity granted to the Assembly’s members, and reformation of the National Assembly into the Constituent Assembly, the conflict would be mitigated within the courts and government, or so Maduro had hoped.

Through analyzing Maduro’s decision to implement the Constituent Assembly, there is some truth to his fear in conflicting with the previous National Assembly. However, rewriting the Constitution to many authors such as Vivanco and Broner sees it as an act of retaining his power for an extended period. By appointing his own members, the President is effectively setting the stage to prolong his reign. However, this is at the expense of Venezuelan democracy, and the human rights of the Venezuelan people (Vivanco, Broner, 2017).  Democracy affirms a system of government that allows the people to elect their leaders, and the leaders to represent their people (Garner et al, 2017).

By Phippen’s account, if Maduro truly believed in restoring the peace in his country, he would’ve considered the opinions of his citizens when convening the Constituent Assembly. Instead, he held a Plebiscite asking voters whether or not they approved of his plan to convene a new Constitution. Later that same month, over seven million Venezuelans opposed the president’s plan to change the constitution- an overwhelming majority of those who were able to participate in the vote. The fact that Maduro continued his decree, despite the large majority that opposes it, demonstrates how the referendum was purely symbolic and had no real implications on the decision itself (Phippen, 2017).

Even so, holding the referendum in it of itself gives the mandate an impression of democratic will. However, by neglecting the will of the people, and failing to articulate the people’s political and social preferences, Maduro is going against the principles of Democracy (Garner, et al. 2017). Many global witnesses such as the US see this election as “illegitimate”, and are in support of the opposition leader Guaido (Pascus, 2017). The Venezuelan President is configuring his government to resemble more of a dictatorship: thus threatening the integrity of Democracy in Venezuela itself.

What is truly alarming about this entire predicament is the loose and vaguely defined powers of the Constituent Assembly. Maduro’s decree states that the initiative of the Constituent Assembly is “to contain increasing political violence” through a “reorganization of the state that recaptures the constitutional principle of cooperation of public powers” ( Pascus, 2017). Vivanco and Broner believe that Maduro’s decree resembles an Orwellian way to rule to describe the government’s exploitation and violation of the remaining independence that institutions such as the National Assembly possess(Vivanco, Broner, 2017). Describing Maduro\’s rule as “Orwellian” delineates the totalitarian likeness of his rule and ambition of reshaping the political system.

Soon after the ruling, Attorney General  Luisa Ortega Diaz referred to the move as a “rupture of constitutional order” ( Pascus, 2017).  The Attorney General has been considered a supporter of Maduro for many years: thus her accusations carry a heavier weight given that her position lies in the centre of the legal system. The new Constitution has brought changes that configure the electoral rules to amplify his support; Maduro has even taken upon the “responsibility” to appoint the new Assembly members himself, or by his own appeal. The members are solely comprised of his government supporters. The president is evidently abusing the principle of Constitutionalism; many scholars such as Partlett have critiqued the President of taking advantage of this new establishment.

By handpicking those that occupy the Assembly seats has allowed Maduro significant opportunities for manipulation (Partlett, 2017).  During a televised address to the country, he described the Assembly as “a power that’s above and beyond every other” (BBC, 2017). Political Scientist Richard S. Kay finds this deeply concerning as he argues that Constitutions are meant to evoke political possibilities as well as legal restraint (2019). The fault in Maduro’s new Constitution lies in the fact that it allows him to exercise his political power without any legal restraints- which is further evidence of him taking advantage of this new establishment: the Constituent Assembly. Maduro’s decree is a flagrant power grab that grants him the ability to claim full legal authority and reshape the political landscape.

Although it would be simple to place the Socialist President at the core of the issue, we must also consider the implications of the Supreme Tribunal Court of Venezuela. The high court was the first to initiate the removal of the opposition which is what catalyzed Maduro’s authoritarian rule. The Tribunal stripped the power away from three lawmakers due to “irregularities”, removed attorney general Luis Ortega Diaz from office and much more.  By allowing the President to possess most, if not all, the parliamentary powers; and with the absence of the National Assembly, there is no one to regulate his actions (Rosas, 2017). Maduro is leading the country of Venezuela towards authoritarianism one step at a time. His leadership  seeks to establish a new Constitution that strengthens his rule and that controls the opposition (Rosas, 2017) Both of which he has been able to achieve with the assistance of the Supreme Court. Instead of being the country’s last source of checks and balances, the Supreme Court has become a political weapon that rests in Maduro’s grasp (Rosas, 2017).

The unilateral movement was referred to as “illegitimate” by many and resulted in an outcry of protests and deadly violence from the millions of citizens that opposed Maduro (. Not only is the Maduro Government blocking the proper functions of the National Assembly and other opposition members, he is also violating the people’s right to vote, and undermining popular sovereignty. Evidence of Venezuela’s distress and disapproval of Maduro is found in the series protests in Venezuela as a result of the culmination of political tensions. The protests are driven by the people’s self-determination, to defend their Democracy and decide their own political future (Aleem, 2017). Even though these protests have taken place for well over half a decade now, Maduro has done little to resolve matters for the citizens or reach a compromise. Instead, he has simply exacerbated the conflict between the Maduro government and the citizens of Venezuela with his new mandate.

It is clear that Maduro is purposely manipulating  the hegemonic construction of the political system to steer power in his favour. Italian philosopher and political scientist Antonio Gramsci coined the term hegemony to comprehend and characterize the roles of domination and subordination in a society (Maerz, 2017). A key observation of Gramsci’s investigation was the largely consensual means that leaders use to perpetuate their rule; to secure this consent, rulers must portray their interests in relation to their subordinates through intellectual and moral grounds (Maerz, 2017). However, Maduro has done exactly the opposite: instead of retaining his presidency through consensual means he is abusing his position in the hegemonic class by ordering a new Constitution that will protect his reign.

Gramsci perceives the notion of hegemony in relation to not just ideas, but also production. The political scientist argues that hegemonic order is needed for economic production in a capitalist society. In contrast, the Venezuelen President is doing nothing to mend the productive deterioration of his country, and is only aggravating the political instability by giving the impression of a democratic election.   In short, Venezuela’s frighteningly volatile and vulnerable position is a result of Maduro’s arbitrary decision to nullify the opposition. His desperate attempt to maintain power has done nothing to mitigate the political tensions in Venezuela. The notion Democracy entails the responsibility to protect and represent the state’s inhabitants: if Maduro continues to disregard these responsibilities, then he should not be entitled to the position that he currently possesses. Consequently, the false democratic rhetoric does not only deter election turn-out, but it also creates rising instability of the political landscape.