CARACAS: Venezuela’s opposition will present reams of signatures to election authorities on Tuesday calling for a referendum to remove President Nicolas Maduro, whom it blames for the country’s crushing economic crisis.
Venezuelans fed up with food shortages, soaring inflation and now a paralyzing electricity crunch have flocked to sign a petition for a recall referendum, according to the opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), which has the papers piled up in neatly labeled boxes at one of its offices in Caracas.
It says it will present 2.5 million signatures — more than 12 times the number needed to launch the referendum process — to the National Electoral Board on Tuesday.
However, board official Tania D’Amelio suggested on Twitter that the authorities might not start verifying the signatures until late May.
That drew opposition cries of bias in favor of Maduro and the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV).
“There’s no doubt about it… Tania D’Amelio is a supporter and unconditional activist of the PSUV and is working to prevent a recall referendum this year,” Henry Ramos Allup, the speaker of the opposition-controlled legislature, wrote on Twitter Monday.
Racing against clock
Opponents are racing to hold a recall referendum before the end of the year.
Under Venezuela’s constitution, after January 2017 a successful recall vote would transfer power to Maduro’s vice president rather than trigger new elections.
The constitution gives the authorities five days to verify the signatures collected by the opposition.
But D’Amelio indicated that the five-day countdown would begin only once the full 30 days allotted for circulating the petition had lapsed.
The opposition insists there is no need to wait until the end of the 30-day period because it already surpassed the required 200,000 signatures “in record time,” in the words of MUD executive secretary Jesus Torrealba.
If the electoral board accepts the signatures as valid — far from a sure bet — the opposition will then have to collect four million more for the board to organize the vote.
New time zone
Adding to Venezuela’s woes, Maduro’s government has taken a series of drastic measures to deal with the electricity crisis, instituting four-hour daily blackouts across most of the country, reducing the public-sector workweek to two days and closing schools on Fridays.
The power cuts sparked riots and looting last week in Venezuela’s second-largest city, Maracaibo.
On Sunday the country also set its clocks forward half an hour in an attempt to curb evening electricity demand.
Maduro blames the power crunch on the El Nino weather phenomenon, which has unleashed the worst drought in 40 years, reducing the reservoirs at Venezuela’s hydroelectric dams.
But the opposition says mismanagement is to blame for the power crisis as well as the recession and shortages.
Maduro warns of ‘rebellion’
Maduro defiantly urged his supporters on Sunday to launch a “rebellion” if the opposition succeeds in ousting him.
“If the oligarchy someday does something against me and manages to take this palace, I order you to declare yourselves in rebellion and decree an indefinite general strike,” he told supporters massed outside the presidential palace in a fiery May Day speech.
A recent poll found that more than two-thirds of Venezuelans want Maduro, elected president by a razor-thin margin in 2013, to leave office.
Once-booming Venezuela, which has the world’s largest proven oil reserves, has plunged into economic chaos as global crude prices have collapsed.
The import-dependent country faces acute shortages of food and basic goods like toilet paper due to a lack of foreign currency, more than 96 percent of which it gets from oil sales.
The economy, which has been in recession since 2013, shrank 5.7 percent last year. Inflation came in at more than 180 percent, and is forecast to hit 700 percent this year.
Maduro has nevertheless vowed to press on with the socialist “revolution” launched in 1999 by his predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez.