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Venezuela opposition urges protests after Maduro recall blocked

Published 23/10/2016

Lilian Tintori, centre, the wife of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, joins a protest demanding a recall referendum against President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas (AP)
Lilian Tintori, centre, the wife of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, joins a protest demanding a recall referendum against President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas (AP)

Venezuela is bracing for turbulence after its socialist government blocked a presidential recall referendum in a move opposition leaders are calling a coup.

The opposition is urging supporters to take to the streets, beginning with a march on a major highway led by the wives of jailed activists, while a leading government figure is calling for the arrest of high-profile government critics.

Polls suggest President Nicolas Maduro would lose a recall vote, but that became a moot issue on Thursday when election officials issued an order suspending a recall signature drive a week before it was to start.

"What we saw yesterday was a coup," said former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, who had been the leading champion of the recall effort. "We'll remain peaceful, but we will not be taken for fools. We must defend our country."

International condemnation was swift. Twelve western hemisphere nations, including the US and even leftist-run governments such as Chile and Uruguay, said in a statement on Friday that the suspension of the referendum and travel restrictions on the opposition leadership affected the prospect for dialogue and finding a peaceful solution to the nation's crisis.

In another sign of growing regional tensions, Colombia's flagship airline briefly grounded all flights to Caracas after a Venezuelan air force jet came close to an Avianca Boeing 787 with about 200 people aboard.

The commercial jet landed safely at its intended destination of Bogota 90 minutes later. The airline said flights would be resumed on Sunday following clarification from the two governments.

The socialists won power nearly two decades ago with the election of the popular former president Hugo Chavez, and for years enjoyed easy election victories. But with the economy in free fall, polls show most Venezuelans have turned against the party, and over the years, the administration has gradually become increasingly autocratic.

Critical television stations have been closed and several leading opposition activists have been imprisoned. The country's supreme court, packed with government supporters, has endorsed decree powers for Mr Maduro and said he can ignore congress, following a landslide victory for the opposition in legislative elections.

The election commission, which has issued a string of pro-government rulings, halted the recall process on grounds of alleged irregularities in a first-round of signature gathering.

Polls suggest 80% of voters wanted Mr Maduro gone this year, and the electoral council also ordered a delay of about six months in governorship elections slated for the end of the year which the opposition was heavily favoured to win. It gave no reason for the delay.

The opposition says the socialist party has simply decided to put off elections indefinitely in the face of overwhelming voter discontent.

The opposition coalition has called for a massive street protest on Wednesday, on what would have been the start of the signature-gathering campaign.

Mr Maduro was traveling outside the country, but in a televised address urged calm at home.

"I call on everyone to remain peaceful, to engage in dialogue, respect law and order and not to do anything crazy," he said.

Meanwhile, one of his most powerful allies, Diosdado Cabello, said top opposition leaders should be jailed for attempting election fraud. And opposition leaders said a local court blocked eight of their leaders from leaving the country.

Amid the rising tensions, former Spanish prime minister Jose Luis Zapatero, who for months has been attempting to mediate dialogue between the two sides, is in Caracas and expected to meet representatives of the opposition and the government.

The opposition had centred its energy on rallying Venezuelans to sign petitions next week demanding a referendum on Mr Maduro's removal. That would require collecting and validating four million signatures from 20% of the electorate within three days in each of the country's 24 states.

But the campaign had already become mostly symbolic because the election board ruled in September that no vote would take place this year.

That timing is crucial. A successful vote to oust Mr Maduro this year would have triggered a presidential election and given the opposition a good shot at winning power. If Mr Maduro is voted out in 2017, though, his vice president will finish the presidential term, leaving the socialists in charge.

The electoral council said the decision was based on rulings by courts in four states that found there was fraud in the initial stage of the petition drive, when the opposition collected signatures from 1% of the electorate.

The council itself had validated those signatures in August and allowed the process to move forward. It gave no indication if or when the process would resume.

The move sparked a new round of international condemnation of the socialist government.

US Republican senator Marco Rubio called for increased sanctions on Venezuela, the head of the Organisation of American States promised concrete consequences for violating democratic norms, and US State Department spokesman John Kirby said the elections board was being used to block voters' "right to determine the direction of their country".

AP

Press Association

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