On Saturday, July 3, speaking at a rally held to protest the government's continued attacks on dissenters, Venezuelan opposition leader Henrique Capriles laid out his strategy for unseating President Nicolás Maduro: upend Venezuela's existing institutions.
The Venezuelan constitution sets no limits on what a Constitutional Assembly can do. It states that a Constitutional Assembly can "transform the state, create a new legal framework, and write a new constitution." It also says that the state's institutions "will not be allowed to interfere in any way with the decisions of the National Constitutional Assembly."
In other words, a Constitutional Assembly can do whatever it wants. The Constitutional Assembly in Venezuela is "supra-constitutional," a term coined by pro-Chávez judges to signify that it cannot be constrained by the constitution, or by any other existing law or institution.
This is one of the more controversial legacies of chavismo. When Hugo Chávez first convened a Constitutional Assembly in 1999, the existing Supreme Court established that the power of the Venezuelan people was above that of the existing constitution -- which did not include the possibility of convening such an Assembly -- and those of any judges or other elected officials. This means a Constitutional Assembly has the power to remove judges, Congress, and even the president himself. The Assembly promptly shut down Congress, assumed legislative powers, and began overhauling the Judiciary. (In the case of Chávez, the 1999 Assembly -- dominated by chavista supporters -- asked him to stay on as president, and he graciously obliged.)
Capriles' strategy follows the same script. He has become convinced that Venezuela's institutions are so corrupt, so unsalvageable, that the time has come for convening "the people's constitutional power."
How can he do this?
The constitution says that a Constitutional Assembly can be called if 15 percent of all nationally registered voters petition for it. Next, a nationwide referendum is held to ask people to approve the idea. If approved, an election is held to select the members of the Assembly.
Capriles' strategy will likely involve a petition drive, a move for which voters will have little enthusiasm. Venezuela under chavismo has a long, sordid history of violating citizens' privacy and using petition drives as tools for political retaliation. Still, Capriles should be able to find the required number of people he needs. He would then hope to get a majority of members in the Assembly, and proceed with the dismantling of the chavista state.
How long the process could take is anybody's guess. The cumbersome procedure is likely to be made even more treacherous as a result of the government's manipulation of the rules. This is also part of chavismo's nefarious legacy.
When the opposition decided to exercise its constitutional right to convene a recall referendum against Hugo Chávez in 2003 in order to determine whether the president would continue his term until 2007, it had to wait a full 18 months before the referendum took place. In the meantime, the government put legal roadblocks in the referendum's path by questioning the validity of the signatures in the petition drive, forcing people to sign several times, and delaying the actual vote. This allowed the government to gain valuable time, during which Chávez cranked up his populist machine and benefitted from a subsequent rise in opinion polls. Chávez won the referendum by a comfortable margin.
When it's the government that's petitioning for major changes, however, things move swiftly. In early 1999, Hugo Chávez took the oath of office pledging to convene a Constitutional Assembly that would radically change Venezuela's institutions and pave the way for his chavista project. Various votes took place, with Chávez winning all of them, and by December of that year Venezuelans had a new constitution in the books, one that was tailor-made for the chavistas.
Likewise, in 2008, Hugo Chávez convened a referendum to approve yet another constitutional reform eliminating term limits for all elected representatives. Two months passed between the moment he convened the vote and the moment it took place, leaving the underfunded opposition with little space to vigorously contest the reform.
Maduro suggested that the oppositions' new plans to force a referendum amount to an "attack on the constitution," but backtracked a day later, saying that he welcomed the challenge. Capriles, in the meantime, will hope that the government's numbers suffer from the deteriorating economy. If mayoral elections scheduled for December yield a strong result for the opposition, Venezuelans can expect to go back to the polls in the near future.
Capriles has repeated in the last few days that Maduro is illegitimate, whle adding that a military coup a la Egypt would be a tragedy for Venezuela. By forcing a Constitutional Assembly, he is gambling on a constitutional exit to the political crisis in the country. However, he clearly sees this as a coup de grace, the final stage of a strategy that aims to continue degrading the government's core support.
If Venezuelans end up with a Constitutional Assembly tailored to the opposition, it will likely be the end of chavismo as a political force. A lot is riding on Capriles' proposal -- but Venezuelans can be relieved that, at last, he's shown them his strategy.
Transitions is the group blog of the Democracy Lab channel, a collaboration between Foreign Policy and the Legatum Institute.