Venezuela government aims to sink Maduro recall, opposition protests

CARACAS Venezuela President Nicolas Maduro’s socialist government sought on Tuesday to scupper a push by the opposition to oust him this year via a referendum, while his opponents called for protests to demand the vote.

As the OPEC nation faces in an unprecedented economic crisis, both sides are in deadlock over a provision in the constitution allowing a recall referendum halfway through the president’s six-year term.

Government supporters lodged a complaint at the election board saying the Democratic Unity (MUD) coalition falsified signatures in an initial collection to trigger the process.

“They are committing grave fraud and corruption,” senior Socialist Party leader Jorge Rodriguez told reporters outside the election council, saying signatures of nearly 11,000 dead people and 3,000 minors were included.

Maduro, 53, who won election to replace Hugo Chavez in 2013, has vowed there will be no referendum, and the election council has been dragging its feet over the process.

The opposition urged supporters to march towards the council’s Caracas headquarters on Wednesday to demand it validate the first round of signatures, 1 percent of registered voters in each state.

“We are waiting for them to speak clearly to the country, to respect Venezuelans and the constitution,” opposition leader Henrique Capriles said in a speech at a public event.

“We are in an emergency,” he said. “All the prices are rising and the government does nothing. … To change this situation, there has to be political change.”

If the referendum process proceeds, the next stage would be for the opposition to obtain 20 percent, or nearly 4 million signatures, asking for the vote.

In addition to the fraud accusations, the government said there was not enough time to organise a referendum this year because the opposition had waited too long before activating the mechanism. Capriles has said it would be possible to hold it by Oct. 30 or Nov. 6.

The timing is important because if Maduro loses a referendum this year, there would be a new presidential vote – which polls indicate he would likely lose.

If Maduro loses a referendum after January, he would be replaced by his vice president, effectively leaving the Socialist Party in power until the next presidential election scheduled for the end of 2018.

Critics blame failed socialist economic policies for Venezuela’s 2-1/2 year recession, the world’s highest inflation, product shortages and long lines at shops. Maduro said the fault lies with falling oil prices and an “economic” war by opponents including Washington.

(Additional reporting by Diego Ore; Editing by Eyanir Chinea and Richard Chang)