This was originally published in Venezuela Analysis. The vote takes place today. There is more on the call for a Constituent Assembly here.
Q & A: The National Constituent Assembly in Venezuela
What is a National Constituent Assembly (ANC), under Venezuelan law?
A National Constituent Assembly is essentially a constitutional convention, a gathering for the purpose of writing a new constitution or revising an existing constitution. Apart from the famous examples from the 18th century America and France, a range of other countries have employed this mechanism. In Venezuela, Article 347 of its constitution says:
“The original constituent power rests with the people of Venezuela. This power may be exercised by calling a National Constituent Assembly for the purpose of transforming the State, creating a new juridical order and drawing up a new Constitution.”
Venezuela’s constitution is itself the product of a constitutional convention held in 1999, convened at the initiative of President Chávez to draft a new constitution. The constitution was later endorsed by referendum in December 1999. New general elections were held under the new constitution in July 2000. This marked the transition from the Fourth Republic of Venezuela to the present-day Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela
Is President Maduro allowed to call for the setting up of a Constituent Assembly?
Article 348 of the constitution provides for how a National Constituent Assembly is to be instigated:
“The initiative for calling a National Constituent Assembly may emanate from the President of the Republic sitting with the Cabinet of Ministers; from the National Assembly by a two-thirds vote of its members; from the Municipal Councils in open session, by a two-thirds vote of their members; and from 15% of the voters registered with the Civil and Electoral Registry.”
It is also important to note what Article 349 of the constitution says, bearing in mind (as explained later) that the right-wing opposition coalition, which has a majority in the National Assembly, is opposed to the calling of a National Constituent Assembly:
Article 349: “The President of the Republic shall not have the power to object to the new Constitution. The existing constituted authorities shall not be permitted to obstruct the Constituent Assembly in any way. For purposes of the promulgation of the new Constitution, the same shall be published in the Official Gazette of the Republic of Venezuela or in the Gazette of the Constituent Assembly.”
Why has President Maduro called for a National Constituent Assembly?
In a formal document which he signed in front of the National Electoral Council (CNE), President Maduro stated that the call for the Constituent Assembly was made in the context of the current social, political and economic circumstances in which there are severe internal and external threats against democracy and the constitutional order.
This refers to the right-wing opposition-led violence aimed at bringing down the elected Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. The violence began in early April, resulting so far in scores of deaths and over 1,200 people injured. A key tactic in the violent protests is the use of ‘guarimbas’ or street blockades created by masked protesters.
The current violence has involved attacks on state facilities and services such as maternity hospitals, electricity supplies, food depots and public transport, and also targeted assassinations of government supporters. A ramping up of the aggression occurred in late June when a police officer flying a stolen helicopter attacked the Ministry of Interior building and the Supreme Court, firing shots and dropping four grenades.
The purpose of the Constituent Assembly has been expounded on by former Education Minister Elias Jaua, who explained in an interview with Televen, a private Venezuela TV channel, that its aims were “to maintain political stability, to solve the economic issues, to broaden and to strengthen the system of social welfare [and] to heal the social wounds that have come up during the conflict”.
When and how will the Constituent Assembly be made up?
Elections for Constituent Assembly are scheduled to take place on 30 July 2017.
Anybody, regardless of political persuasion, can be nominated or nominate themselves to be a candidate for election to the Constituent Assembly.
Candidates may be nominated in one of the following ways:
• by their own initiative.
• by the initiative of groups of voters and voters.
• by the initiative of the sectoral groups comprising173 seats of the 545 seat Constituent Assembly (see infogram)
In order to run for office on their own initiative, 3% of voters and voters registered in the electoral registry of the municipalities are required to nominate the constituents. In the sector category, the candidates will be nominated by the corresponding sector, and should receive the backing of 3% of the sector to which they belong.
From these various ways of being nominated, there are over 6,000 candidates competing for Constituent Assembly seats.
In keeping with how previous elections have been organised, the National Electoral Council (CNE) organised a ‘trial run’ of voting arrangements for the Constituent Assembly, setting up nearly 2,000 voting booths in voting centres across the country, in order to be assured that on election day everything would run smoothly and efficiently..
How will a new constitution emerge?
Once elected, the National Constituent Assembly will be convened within 72 hours and will get to work.
The Assembly will set its agenda for discussion on the basis of what it sees as national priorities. As convenor of the Assembly, however, the President has proposed nine topics for the Assembly to consider:
• the nation’s right and need for peace
• improvements to the country’s economy
• constitutional recognition of the various ‘Missions’ (government social programmes)
• an extension of the justice system’s scope, to end impunity for crimes
• constitutional recognition of new forms of popular and participatory democracy in Venezuela, such as communal councils and communes
• the defence of Venezuela’s sovereignty and protection against foreign intervention
• reinvigorating the plural, multicultural character of Venezuela
• a guarantee for the future of Venezuela’s youth through enshrining in the constitution their rights and the need to preserve life on the planet
What is the right-wing opposition’s response to the National Constituent Assembly initiative?
Venezuela’s right-wing opposition, the so-called ‘Roundtable of Democratic Unity’ (MUD) coalition, originally announced in May that it would boycott the National Constituent Assembly and denounced it as an illegitimate effort to rewrite the nation’s constitution.
This is seemingly in contrast to the position it held in 2013, when 55 opposition leaders signed a joint statement in support of setting up a constituent assembly.
Considering the opposition’s claim about the depth of the government’s unpopularity, echoed by most of the media, it is puzzling that opposition candidates will not be contesting all Constituent Assembly seats.
Instead of taking part in this legitimate constitutional process, the opposition held on July 16 their own unofficial plebiscite, asking whether voters recognised or rejected the Constituent Assembly process. Turnout levels for this exercise have been hotly disputed, since the process was not conducted under the auspices of the National Electoral Council and the voting was not independently audited.
How does this Constituent Assembly initiative fit with current peace and dialogue initiatives?
The convening of a Constituent Assembly is a key part of ongoing efforts by President Maduro to engage in constructive dialogue with the opposition.
The dialogue process was launched last year between the government and opposition sectors, but the right-wing MUD coalition has refused to participate.
Some opposition parties have accepted the offer of dialogue. Seventeen Venezuelan opposition parties met with the government to discuss the Constituent Assembly in May 2017. The parties who accepted the invitation included Citizenship Movement, Mopivene Movement, Republican Democracy, Republican Movement, Labour Power, Red Flag, Civilian Resistance, Renewable Democracy, Ecological Movement, Young Party and the Stone Party.
In an attempt to pursue dialogue, in early June Maduro sent a letter to Pope Francis asking him to mediate the political conflict with opposition sectors that have encouraged violence in the streets. Pope Francis has repeatedly urged dialogue between sectors in Venezuela, criticising part of the opposition for not being willing to sit down for talks, but without success. He has also called on Venezuelan bishops to denounce “any form of violence.”
President Maduro has followed this by again renewing his call for the opposition to agree to dialogue and peace, in order that solutions can be arrived at to meet the needs and well-being of the Venezuelan people. He has emphasised that these solutions can only be arrived at through cooperation and peace.