Opponents of Chavez demand vote to end rule presidency

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The Independent US

Opponents of Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan President, will deliver millions of signatures to the country's electoral authorities today, calling for a referendum to cut short the former army officer's rule.

The right to terminate the mandate of elected officials was an innovation introduced by Mr Chavez and his supporters when they rewrote the constitution in 1999. It comes into effect at the halfway point of any term of office, which in Mr Chavez's case was reached yesterday.

"Chavez cheated the country," said Felipe Mujica, the president of the Movement to Socialism, who is a former ally of the president. "He offered a programme of political, social and economic reforms which he failed to deliver, and instead he's taking us down an authoritarian and autocratic road."

After staging a failed coup in 1992, Mr Chavez was elected president in 1998, and again in 2000 under the new constitution. He promised a new deal for the poor majority, the principal victims of a corrupt and unresponsive two-party system which had led the country into two decades of economic and social decline.

But although Mr Chavez once enjoyed the support of more than 80 per cent of the electorate, polls now show the approval of little more than 30 per cent. The economy declined last year by almost 9 per cent, and this year is expected to end with an unprecedented 15-20 per cent collapse.

The underlying reason is the decline in business confidence caused by almost two years of political crisis, including the installation last April of a short-lived, de facto government. After 19 people died during a mass demonstration, Mr Chavez was briefly ousted by the armed forces, who restored him to power two days later.

In December, the opposition tried to paralyse the country through a combined business and labour stoppage that lasted two months and brought the country's vital state-owned oil industry to a virtual halt. The government sacked more than 18,000 oil company employees and regained control of the industry.

In May, after months of talks chaired by Cesar Gaviria, the secretary-general of the Organisation of American States , government and opposition agreed to seek a solution within the framework of the 1999 constitution, but the level of political polarisation has remained high.

"The opposition is once again on the slippery slope," said Nicolas Maduro, a congressman and a leading member of Mr Chavez's Fifth Republic Movement. "They're not telling their people the truth." Government supporters argue that the opposition leadership is not interested in a referendum, since it has its sights set on elections for mayors and state governors next year. They also claim that it does not really have - and cannot obtain - the 2.4 million or so signatures (a fifth of the electorate) required to trigger the process.

They blame the opposition for the deadlock in the National Assembly or parliament which has held up the appointment of a new electoral authority, without which no elections can be held.

The intervention of the supreme court, whose constitutional branch has said it will appoint the authority itself by next Monday if there is no solution, has angered the government benches. "No [auth- ority] named by the court will have the confidence of the people," Mr Maduro said, vowing to use "all means at our disposal" to prevent this happening. In theory, even the current, lame-duck authority can verify the signatures within a month, and the new electoral authorities can take over the process, leading to a referendum by November. Few observers expect smooth sailing, but Mr Mujica is optimistic.

"I don't believe a clique that leads a minority sector of the population can impose an undemocratic solution," he said. "An overwhelming majority wants to see a referendum take place."