Venezuela is braced for more street protests after authorities dashed hopes for a referendum that could have forced the deeply unpopular Socialist government from power.
The national election committee — which the opposition says is stacked with party loyalists — ruled that a referendum on whether President Maduro should step down could not take place before next year. The timing is crucial: if the country were to decide against Mr Maduro this year it would trigger a general election, which the opposition would almost certainly win. Any time after that and the law states that his vice-president should simply take over, and the Socialist party would retain its 17-year grip on power.
An opposition spokesman, Jesús Torrealba, said the movement’s leaders were holding emergency talks to discuss their response, but that the ruling was “nothing but an admission from the government that it has nothing to offer the Venezuelan people at the polls. Far from a sign of strength, it’s just the opposite.
“We are quite sure of this: millions of Venezuelans are going to mobilise and hand [Mr Maduro] a resounding electoral defeat — as well as a political and moral defeat,” he said.
More than a million people took to the streets earlier this month to protest against the government’s efforts to slow the process down.
The national electoral council announced that the referendum could only be held “in the middle of the first quarter of 2017”.
With chronic shortages of food and medicine, a nosediving economy, world-beating inflation and record murder rates, the government is desperate to avoid any kind of vote on its performance and has done everything it can to block the referendum. Despite that, the opposition gathered almost ten times the required number of signatures in the first round of the process needed to trigger the event.
To force a referendum, the opposition now has to gather about four million signatures backing the proposal — 20 per cent of the population — over three days. The electoral committee said that process would be held on October 26-28. It also specified that the opposition had to gather 20 per cent from each of the country’s 24 states, not just nationwide. That could present serious problems for the opposition.
“The decision to collect 20 per cent of signatures by state is against the constitution, it is arbitrary and illegal,” said José Ignacio Hernández, a political analyst close to the opposition. “The same commission ruled the 20 per cent margin was for the country as a whole in 2004, when there was a referendum on Hugo Chávez [then the president].”
Several states are still deeply loyal to Mr Chávez’s revolution and could block the referendum.