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Venezuela puts off key decision on Maduro recall vote

June 2, 2016

Venezuela’s opposition called for calm Thursday after electoral authorities cancelled a key meeting on whether they could go ahead with efforts to remove embattled President Nicolas Maduro in a referendum.

Opponents are racing against the clock to hold a recall referendum by the end of the year and ditch the leftist leader, whom they accuse of driving Venezuela into economic and political chaos.

The National Electoral Board (CNE) had been due to deliver its ruling on whether it accepted or rejected an initial petition with 1.8 million signatures endorsing a recall vote.

But just after their meeting with the CNE was due to start, opposition spokesman Jesus Torrealba said the electoral authorities had postponed it indefinitely.

The opposition warns the country faces an explosion of unrest if authorities do not allow a referendum this year.

A grinding economic crisis has made daily life increasingly difficult for Venezuelans, who face hyperinflation, shortages of food and medicine, daily power outages, the near-paralysis of government offices and violent crime.

“We call on the Venezuelan people to remain calm,” Torrealba told journalists, saying leaders of the opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) would hold an emergency meeting on the “unprecedented situation.”

In a sign of the tension gripping the country, hundreds of soldiers and police fired tear gas to break up a relatively small protest by dozens of anti-Maduro demonstrators just before the meeting was suspended.

Rallying to cries of “We are hungry” and “This government is going to fall,” the protesters defied the heavy security presence, erecting barricades in the streets and trying to reach the presidential palace.

“I’m protesting because we’re tired of the lines, of not finding products” at stores and markets, said Francis Marcano, a 21-year-old student who was carrying a stone in his hand, which he said was for protection.

A journalists’ union said at least 17 reporters covering the protest were assaulted by security forces or robbed by armed thugs.

– Long road –

The opposition accuses electoral authorities of dragging their feet on the referendum in order to protect Maduro.

Maduro’s camp in turn accuses the opposition of massive fraud in its petition drive.

Even if the CNE eventually accepts the petition submitted on May 2, Maduro’s opponents would face a long and winding road to call a referendum.

And they may not get there by the crucial date of January 10 — four years into the leftist leader’s six-year term — at which point a successful recall vote would no longer trigger new elections but simply pass power to Maduro’s vice president.

For the petition to be accepted, the CNE must recognize at least 200,000 signatures as valid.

Signatories would then have to present themselves in person to confirm their identity with a fingerprint scan.

The opposition would then have to submit a second petition, this time with four million signatures, or 20 percent of the electorate, for the CNE to organize a referendum.

To remove Maduro from office, the pro-recall camp would need more votes than the 7.5 million he won in the 2013 election.

– Waiting game –

That adds up to a lot of ifs, and political analysts say the CNE could easily stall the process until next year, when Maduro’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) could orchestrate the unpopular president’s replacement by another party leader.

Polls show nearly seven in 10 Venezuelans want Maduro to go.

But the divided opposition has struggled to rally a substantial protest movement or effectively wield the congressional majority it won last December, which has been hamstrung by a Supreme Court seen as loyal to Maduro.

Venezuela’s economy is forecast to contract eight percent this year, with inflation of 700 percent.

Home to the world’s largest oil reserves, Venezuela has undergone a spectacular implosion as crude prices have plunged over the past two years, threatening Maduro and the socialist economic model he inherited from late predecessor Hugo Chavez.

Yet Venezuelans have not yet erupted into mass protests, whether because they are too busy waiting in lines, intimidated by security forces or haunted by the violence that killed 43 people during pro- and anti-government demonstrations in 2014.

Dispatches from AFP concerning freedom of information, censorship and news coverage in regions where independent media is under threat.