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Venezuelan Recall Petition Tossed

Efforts to oust President Chavez are stymied by a decision that signatures were collected too soon.

September 13, 2003|T. Christian Miller | Times Staff Writer

BOGOTA, Colombia — Venezuela's highest electoral body Friday threw out a petition signed by millions of citizens demanding the recall of President Hugo Chavez, dealing a temporary setback to efforts to oust the controversial leader.

The National Election Council declared that the 3.3 million signatures collected by the opposition in February were invalid because they were gathered before Aug. 19, the midpoint of Chavez's term, when the recall process formally was allowed to begin.

The widely expected decision is almost sure to delay any recall vote, which opposition leaders had hoped would be held as soon as November. Other looming legal challenges could easily push an election into next year.

Thousands of Chavez supporters who had gathered outside the council's headquarters cheered the news.

"These signatures were collected illegally," Ismael Garcia, a National Assembly deputy and close ally of Chavez, told reporters. "These signatures are invalid."

Opposition leaders, who have led a determined campaign against Chavez, said they would begin planning a new signature-gathering drive for next month.

They said they would await the publication of new guidelines, which the council promised to deliver this month. The recall election is surrounded by legal uncertainty because Venezuela's 1999 constitution offers no procedural details.

"Despite this determination, the people have obtained today a fundamental success," said Enrique Mendoza, a provincial governor who is considered Chavez's strongest potential challenger in a presidential race. "Now the rules to hold a constitutional recall are clear."

Friday's decision was the first big test for the new council, formed recently after months of partisan debate. Chavez allies and opponents in the National Assembly had deadlocked after they were unable to reach agreement on its members. The Supreme Court stepped in and appointed the body.

The council "has come out of this strengthened," Ezequiel Zamora, a member who abstained from voting, told reporters. Three of the five members of the council voted to nullify the recall petition.

The decision was the latest chapter in the political turmoil that has shaken Venezuela in the last several years.

The opposition, whose disparate members include politicians, homemakers and wealthy business owners, accuse Chavez of driving the country to ruin with his promises of a revolution to ease the country's poverty.

Chavez survived a coup attempt in April 2002, only to be confronted with a devastating nationwide strike that ended in January. The strike cost the country $6 billion and exacerbated already grim economic conditions. The economy is projected to shrink by as much as $20 billion this year.

The opposition's latest effort is the recall. Polls show that two-thirds of respondents say they would vote to oust Chavez, though he maintains strong support among the poor.

Chavez allies said Friday that they would petition the Supreme Court to declare any further recall effort invalid based on a clause in the constitution that says a politician can face only one such effort while in office.

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