It is interesting to see that reactions to a recall referenda are much the same whether you are here or in California. People react strongly to the idea of recalling a mandate, independent of geography or ideology. To me the question needs to be separated into two parts: i) Should referenda be available to the electorate? and ii) When and how often should they be made available to the electorate?
On the first question I remember thinking that the new Venezuelan Constitution, as proposed by Chavez himself, was a little bit naďve about when and how often you could have a referendum. I remember Chavez himself arguing vehemently that power resided ultimately on the people and he did not believe in a representative democracy, but a participatory one. By this he meant that every important issue should be brought to the electorate and have the people decide using referenda. While this sounds perfectly democratic in theory, this participatory democracy is in reality quite impractical. Basically, if one sets the limit of signatures too low for a referendum, then the opposition parties will spend all their time taking advantage of the weaknesses of the Government, whether local or national, to call for referenda on any subject or candidate. Interestingly enough, while Chavez had originally proposed that 10% of the electorate should be able to initiate a recall referendum against a President’s mandate, it was later changed to 20% and limited to once during a mandate, in order to limit the possible destabilizing aspects of it.
In California, it is clear that the people can recall a Governor. Despite this, the reactions are quite similar, Gov. Davis is trying to block it from a legal point of view while mayor Feinstein calls it a carnival and destabilizing, much like Chavistas do here both in public and in private. The advantage in the US is that there is a single date every year for all referenda, something which does not exist in the Venezuelan Constitution. In fact, this participatory democracy, as Chavez envisioned it, would allow an opposition party to request a referendum basically every week, holding a Government in check, as the rules for processing them and holding them are clearly delineated in the Constitution.
I don’t want foreign readers to get the impression that I exaggerate about Chavez’ belief in the concept of a participatory democracy. In fact, Chavez refused to sign the final statement at the Quebec summit on the grounds that he did not believe in a representative democracy as the proclamation spoke of, but he believed in this participatory democracy in which referenda would rule the day. Somehow since the topic has been in the limelight, Chavez and his cohorts have forgotten about the concept and have revived the same arguments about instabilities and legalities that are present in the California debate. Curiously, it is Chavez that has become the establishment in his reaction to the recall, forgetting all of his pseudo-revolutionary principles.
My feeling is that referenda are a very democratic expression, but in the case of Venezuela’s Constitution, the absence of timeframes allow for the opposition to make referenda a year-around political confrontation. The threshold for a petition for a referendum should in general be high so as to stop artificial questions or challenges, with little chance of support or success. However, referenda should be held on a single date once a year, so as to allow Government to function the rest of the year and not make referenda a ground for politicians to resolve their internal fights. Otherwise, referenda become like blackmail against current Government. In the case of both Venezuela and California, it seems to me that the voters do have a gripe; they have the petition and the signatures and most likely, the votes. Thus, it should be left for the voters to decide whether the mandates are recalled or not. Blocking them, avoiding them or calling them names are simply the only option of those that used democracy to climb up, but refuse to be pushed down by the same people that gave them the power. Whether it is Mickey Mouse, Bozo the Clown or Schwarzenegger running against you is not the relevant question, it is simply whether you are a bigger fool than you or the electorate may think or not. It’s that simple, voters simply don’t forget when they are given a raw deal, least of all when they are fed up with you anyway.