15 Oct 2003 22:18:02 GMT
Venezuela sets Chavez poll signature bid for Nov 28
------------------------------------------------------------------------By Pascal Fletcher
CARACAS, Venezuela, Oct 15 (Reuters) - Venezuela's electoral authorities on Wednesday scheduled a four-day period from Nov 28 to Dec 1 for opponents of leftist President Hugo Chavez to collect signatures to seek a referendum on his rule.
Opposition leaders criticized the date set by the National Electoral Council as far later than they had wanted, but they seemed likely to reluctantly accept it.
"Despite the fact that time is being stolen from us with this date, we'll still be holding a recall referendum well before August," Antonio Ledezma of the opposition Coordinadora Democratica coalition told reporters, referring to an effective deadline for a referendum that could oust the Chavez government.
Under Venezuela's constitution, the opposition needs to collect a minimum of 2.4 million pro-referendum signatures to be able to go ahead with their bid to vote populist Chavez out of office in the world's No. 5 oil exporter.
Foes of Chavez say his self-styled "revolution" is dragging oil-rich Venezuela toward economic ruin and Cuba-style communism. Electoral authorities rejected as flawed an earlier opposition referendum petition last month.
Opposition leaders had asked to hold a fresh signature collection campaign in late October or early November.
They have accused pro-Chavez members of the National Electoral Council of delaying decisions and stringing out the referendum timetable as part of a calculated strategy by the president to obstruct the vote.
Opposition spokesmen warned that hold-ups in the referendum process could rekindle political tensions in Venezuela, where supporters and foes of the president have fought a bitter and often violent political feud for nearly two years.
"The referendum is the valve that releases steam so that this pressure-cooker won't explode. If you block the valve, then it's going to blow," Coordinadora Democratica spokesman Jesus Torrealba told Reuters.
Chavez, a former paratrooper who was elected in 1998 and survived a brief coup last year, has made clear he intends to resist the referendum bid by challenging it with a barrage of political and legal maneuvers.
The National Electoral Council, where pro-Chavez members have a numerical advantage, allotted a separate four-day period, Nov 21-24, for government supporters to collect signatures for referendums they have requested against opposition state governors, deputies and mayors.
Opposition leaders have criticized this government-backed parallel poll initiative as an attempt to obstruct and derail their own referendum challenge against the president.
They had been hoping to hold the presidential recall poll at end-February at the latest, but the Nov 28 signature collection date may push the timetable back further.