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In 1999, with the approval of a new Constitution, Venezuela became the only country in Latin America to grant citizens the right to recall an elected official. This new right, supported by President Chavez, was part of an overall expansion of democratic rights for Venezuelans, many of whom felt left out of the political process in the past.

Despite the tense political polarization that has swept across our country, the recall process has largely proceeded peacefully, adhering to the rules agreed upon at the outset. Last year, officials appointed to the National Electoral Council (CNE, its Spanish acronym) by our Supreme Court were well received by both government supporters and leaders of the opposition. There was also little controversy over the rules established to govern the referendum process, which were unanimously approved by CNE directors and widely supported by all sides.

The Presidential recall process began with the collection of signatures requesting a referendum. The first problem arose last winter when petition gatherers delayed three weeks before submitting the signed petitions — just before the Christmas holidays — rather than turning them in within days as promised. This delayed the schedule of the whole process.

The second and more serious problem was that more than 800,000 signers did not fill out their own petitions. This was in clear violation of a rule requiring all signers to print their own name and other information on the petitions. This rule also exists in California and other U.S. states, and is designed to prevent fraud. It was well-publicized in advance not only by the CNE, but also by the opposition, with television commercials.

Had the CNE followed the letter of the law, these signatures could have been immediately invalidated, stopping the recall campaign in its tracks. Instead, the CNE opted for a more conciliatory solution agreed to by the government and opposition, and endorsed by international observers from the Carter Center and the Organization of American States. The so-called ’repair’ process will allow time for citizens to verify the signatures that were called into question.

But now some opposition leaders, together with US government officials and politicians, have said that there should be a referendum no matter what the outcome of the signature verification process. They have declared, without offering any evidence, that President Chavez is depriving Venezuelans of their right to a recall referendum.

They have also maintained that the failure to hold a referendum will cause a terrible political crisis. But this is not true. The vast majority of Venezuelans, regardless of their political views, are law-abiding citizens who will respect outcome of the signature verification process.

When the CNE decided in March that signatures which were in violation of the rules would have to be reaffirmed, less than 1000 people in the whole country took to the streets in protest. Some burned tires and rioted, or carried guns and fired at the National Guard and other citizens. These actions and images created an impression of instability far greater than existed. Similar events could occur if the opposition fails to affirm the necessary signatures this month. But that would not be a serious political crisis, nor should it be allowed to undermine the constitutional process.

At this point, the result of the repair process remains uncertain. It is possible that the requisite 2.4 million signatures, 20% of all voters, will indeed be validated later this month, at which point the CNE will convene a presidential recall referendum in August of this year. But it is also possible that the signature threshold will not be met, and in this case the will of more than 80% of the voters should also be respected.

In order to function smoothly and sustainably, democratic institutions require that the process be respected by all parties, independent of whether they are happy with the outcome. We Venezuelans hope that whomever is not favored by the CNE’s decision, will nonetheless accept the decision, for the sake of our democracy.