Venezuelan electoral authorities are due to meet Monday to rule on the opposition's bid for a referendum on removing President Nicolas Maduro from power amid an economic implosion.
The National Electoral Council (CNE) left the opposition hanging last Tuesday, its original deadline to rule on whether Maduro's opponents had successfully gathered 200,000 signatures on a petition to make the leftist leader face a recall vote.
The opposition needs a green light from the CNE to move on to the next stage of the long and winding process -- their strategy for ousting a president they blame for food shortages, hyperinflation and mounting chaos gripping Venezuela.
Instead of giving them an answer Tuesday, the electoral authorities testily said they "will not accept pressure" and scheduled a meeting for Monday to consider their auditors' report on the opposition's petition.
It is unclear when they will announce their decision.
The center-right coalition behind the referendum push, the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), accuses the electoral authority of being in bed with Maduro.
But they are hoping pressure from Venezuelans desperate over the collapsing economy will force the government's hand.
"There are two options at this point: common sense and sanity, or the crisis drags on and the country is going to explode at any moment," said MUD lawmaker Julio Borges, the legislative majority leader.
"The whole country is counting on change."
But MUD, a fractious coalition, has struggled to rally mass protests.
Security fears and the opposition's own internal divisions have likely kept many Venezuelans away, along with the fact that many are too busy standing in line for scarce food and basic goods.
Human Rights Watch said last week opposition supporters have been arrested and tortured for protesting.
Maduro's opponents are racing to force a referendum by January 10, the cutoff to trigger new elections.
After that date -- four years into the president's six-year term -- a successful recall vote would simply transfer power to Maduro's hand-picked vice president.
A recent poll found 64 percent of Venezuelans would vote to remove Maduro, who has declared a state of emergency and given his military sweeping powers over food production and distribution.
But even if electoral authorities validate the initial recall petition, the opposition will still have to collect another four million signatures in just three days.
To win the ensuing recall referendum, Maduro's opponents would need more votes than he won the presidency with in 2013 -- around 7.5 million.
Time appears to be on the president's side.
His allies have an arsenal of possible delaying strategies, from more than 8,000 legal challenges filed against the opposition's recall petition, to a request to the electoral authorities to ban MUD for alleged fraud.
Venezuela has sunk into crisis as global prices for its main export, oil, have collapsed.
The economy is facing its third year of deep recession this year. The inflation rate is the highest in the world -- 180 percent last year, and forecast by the IMF to come in at more than 700 percent this year.
The economic tailspin is threatening 17 years of socialist rule under Maduro and his late predecessor, Hugo Chavez.
The opposition's referendum push comes after it won legislative elections in December, only to find its power stymied by the Supreme Court.
Defying the high court, which it says is also in Maduro's pocket, MUD reinstalled three of its lawmakers in the National Assembly last Thursday, ignoring a court decision to suspend them.
The move -- which Maduro's camp wasted no time appealing -- restores the opposition's powerful two-thirds majority.
The Supreme Court barred the three lawmakers in January over allegations of electoral fraud. The opposition condemns the decision as a bald attempt to strip them of their super-majority.
Caracas, Venezuela | AFP |