The decisive step to trigger a recall referendum against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro could happen late October, authorities said Tuesday, probably too late for the opposition to oust his government.
Maduro's opponents must hold a recall referendum by January 10 if they are to succeed in not only removing him from power but sparking new elections to replace his administration.
The National Electoral Council has approved the first of two petitions required to organize a referendum, which they aim to do by the end of this year.
The council's president Tibisay Lucena said on Tuesday that the gathering of signatures for the second petition "would take place around the end of October" on condition that "all the regulatory requirements are fulfilled."
Lucena said in a speech to top officials that if the opposition gathered the four million signatures required to spark a referendum, the CNE would then have a month to verify them.
After that, she said, the CNE would have up to three months to hold the referendum.
That appeared to make it unlikely a referendum will be held by January as the opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) demands.
In line with the constitution, if Maduro loses a referendum held after January 10, he would just transfer power to his handpicked deputy.
The MUD blames the socialist president for an economic crisis that has led to food shortages, riots and looting in the volatile South American country.
A recent survey by pollster Venebarometro indicated that nearly two-thirds of voters would vote against Maduro.
He has branded the economic crisis and the efforts to unseat him a capitalist conspiracy.
He has launched legal challenges against the referendum drive, alleging fraud in the petition process, and vowed there will be no recall vote this year.
Constitutional expert Jose Ignacio Hernandez calculated that the referendum could be held by January 4.
But he said that depends on the will of the CNE.
The opposition says Maduro controls the electoral authorities and accuses them of delaying the referendum procedures.
Electoral affairs specialist Eugenio Martinez said the referendum may not happen until February "if the CNE makes an effort to impose unnecessary delays."
The only top CNE member close to the opposition, Luis Emilio Rondon, told reporters "there is no legal, technological or logistical obstacle" that should prevent the signatures from being gathered before October.
The opposition has called for a major national protest march to Caracas on September 1.
Senior opposition leader Henrique Capriles branded Lucena's announcement "an exercise in cynicism and lies."
The CNE "does not dare to say (openly) that there will not be a referendum this year," he told a news conference.
"It knows very well that blocking the constitutional and democratic path places Venezuela in a highly dangerous situation."
Anti-government protests in 2014 left 43 people dead.
Lucena in turn lashed out at the opposition.
"Harassing the electoral authorities and their employees is a way of trying to distort the constitutional path," she said.
"Attempts are being made to apply maximum pressure to make the people think that the law is being applied arbitrarily."
An official appointed by Maduro to oversee the CNE's processing of the referendum request, Jorge Rodriguez, declared the initiative "legally and judicially dead."
"We had already said it was completely impossible to meet the deadlines to hold a recall referendum in 2016," he said.
"The way things are going and in light of the massive fraud that has been committed, I am sure there won't be one in 2017 either."
Caracas, VENEZUELA | AFP |