Facing a crumbling economy and a resurgent opposition, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro is in the fight of his political life. On May 2, the opposition coalition led by Enrique Capriles, handed in a petition with 1.85 million signatures demanding a recall election. Maduro’s supporters in the judiciary and regulatory agencies are currently trying to kill the measure, but the president’s unpopularity—the country is facing 700 percent inflation and major food shortages—gives him plenty of reason to fear a vote. Ironically, for the many unpopular leaders who have preceded Maduro, a recall is not always bad news. In fact, a revote rarely does what it sets out to do—depose an incumbent leader—and in some cases can even reinvigorate the regime in question.
Recalls—compared with the lengthy legal process of an impeachment—have become a popular shortcut across the world for removing unpopular or incompetent leaders in recent years. The United States helped bring it back in 2003 when film star Arnold Schwarzenegger replaced Gray Davis as governor of California after the latter failed to deal swiftly with both an energy and a budgetary crisis. It was the first time a recall had successfully deposed a governor in the United States since 1921. The next year, Venezuela held a recall vote against Maduro’s predecessor and patron, Hugo Chávez, following his firing of the board of directors of Petróleos de Venezuela (or Pdvsa), the Venezuelan oil company. But it failed to push Chávez from power and actually ended up strengthening his regime.
In fact, although Chávez was highly unpopular at the start of the recall campaign, his approval ratings eventually rebounded. In the end, even though there were some disputes on the fairness of the vote, nearly 60 percent voted to keep him in power. Chávez used the recall to solidify his support among the poor and working class, as well as to punish his opponents who signed the recall petitions. These proved to be popular