The first step in Venezuela’s opposition campaign to recall President Nicolas Maduro has been approved, the national election council has announced.
The council said the opposition had succeeded in gathering 1% of voter signatures in all 24 of Venezuela’s states.
The move is the first part of the opposition’s push for an early end to Nicolas Maduro’s term in office.
In a further twist, the Supreme Court suspended opposition activity in Venezuela’s parliament.
The court said activity would be frozen until three opposition members being investigated for vote-buying were removed.
The country is going through a political and economic crisis, which has led to shortages of basic goods and looting.
The inflation rate is one of the highest in the world and there are long queues outside shops.
The election council said Nicolas Maduro’s opponents had cleared the threshold of obtaining 200,000 valid signatures on a petition demanding that the president face a recall referendum.
The council did not set a date for the next stage of the lengthy recall process – when the opposition will need to collect four million signatures in just three days.
The opposition accuses Nicolas Maduro’s administration of mismanaging the economy.
He was elected in April 2013 and his term runs until 2019.
Correspondents say election council head Tibisay Lucena provided the president with a major fillip by stating that claims of widespread fraud in the opposition petition should be investigated.
Tibisay Lucena said the authorities had detected more than 1,000 apparently falsified signatures.
“The electoral authority will ask the state prosecutor’s office to investigate,” she said.
However, Tibisay Lucena made clear that 98% out of about 408,000 signatures gathered by the opposition Democratic Unity (MUD) coalition – twice the minimum required in the initial phase – had been validated.
The government made clear that it was determined not to allow a referendum this year.
It has initiated nearly 9,000 lawsuits around the country in an effort to try to halt the referendum push.
Correspondents say timing is vital because if President Nicolas Maduro loses a referendum this year – as polls suggest he will – a new presidential vote will be triggered, giving the opposition a chance to end 17 years of socialist rule.
If the president loses a referendum in 2017, he would be replaced by his vice-president, effectively ensuring the socialist party remains in power until the next presidential election scheduled for 2018.
Opposition leaders want Tibisay Lucena immediately to announce a date for the collection of 20% of signatures in order to trigger a referendum as soon as possible.
According to Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro, a referendum the opposition is trying to recall him will not take place this year.
There was no time to organize the recall referendum, said Nicolas Maduro.
On June 10 the National Electoral Council (CNE) declared more than 600,000 signatures on a petition for the referendum invalid.
Venezuela’s opposition says the electoral authorities are working alongside the government to derail the process.
Opposition leaders say their signatures on the petition have also been invalidated, revealing the electoral council’s bias.
Former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles is among those who say their signatures have been ruled out for “failing to meet the requirements”.
The Speaker of the National Assembly, Henry Ramos Allup, described the move as “shameful” and “a provocation”.
Nicolas Maduro accused the opposition of fraud and said he would ask the Supreme Court on June 13 to annul the process.
“If they meet the requirements, the recall referendum will take place next year, full stop” said Nicolas Maduro at a rally in Caracas.
“If they don’t meet the requirements, there will be no recall referendum, full stop.”
Timing is essential for both sides. If the referendum is held by January 10, 2017, and President Nicolas Maduro loses, a new election will be called.
If it is held after January 10, 2017, and the vote goes against Nicolas Maduro, his vice-president takes over and remains in power until the end of the presidential term, in January 2019.
The opposition handed over the petition on May 2.
It said it had gathered the signatures of 1.85 million voters backing a recall referendum, many more than the 197,000 needed at this initial stage. The CNE said on June 10 there were 1.97 million signatures on the list.
The voters whose signatures have not been struck off by the CNE – more than 1.3 million people – will need to turn up at regional electoral offices to confirm their identities later this month.
They will have five days from June 20 to have their signatures checked, CNE President Tibisay Lucena announced on June 10.
Henrique Capriles urged voters to get ready to comply with the CNE demand and go to government offices to have their identities checked later this month.
Venezuela is in a serious economic crisis, which the opposition blames on mistaken left-wing policies of Nicolas Maduro and his predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez.
The leader of Venezuela’s opposition, Henrique Capriles, has urged the army to choose whether it is “with the constitution or with [President Nicolas] Maduro”, after a state of emergency was declared.
President Nicolas Maduro has announced a 60-day emergency, giving soldiers and police wider powers to deal with the country’s spiraling economic crisis.
Henrique Capriles said the decree gave the president unconstitutional powers.
The opposition leader called on Venezuelans to ignore it and take to the streets on May 18.
He told reporters: “We, Venezuelans, will not accept this decree. This is Maduro putting himself above the constitution.
“To impose this, he’d better start preparing to deploy the war tanks and military jets.”
“And I tell the armed forces: The hour of truth is coming, to decide whether you are with the constitution or with Maduro,” Henrique Capriles said.
He said the opposition was not calling for a military coup, but instead seeking a legal and constitutional way of ousting Nicolas Maduro through a recall referendum.
The state of emergency is in place for 60 days and can be renewed for another 60.
Venezuela’s Supreme Court has rejected Henrique Capriles’ appeal against April’s contested presidential election result
The decree was rejected by the opposition-held National Assembly late on May 17, but Nicolas Maduro had indicated that he would not abide by their decision.
At a press conference with foreign journalists in Caracas, Nicolas Maduro said the National Assembly had “lost political validity.
“It’s a matter of time before it disappears,” he added.
Nicolas Maduro also said that the opposition had missed the deadline for the referendum and falsified signatures.
Opposition politicians began the process two weeks ago by handing in a petition signed by 1.85 million people, well above the 1% of voters on the electoral roll needed to kick-start the process.
Venezuela’s constitution says that a referendum will be called to decide if the president remains in power if a second petition is signed by at least 20% of the electorate, or nearly four million people.
However, the government has already made it clear that the referendum will not go ahead.
Nicolas Maduro accused the United States of leading a plot to deploy foreign troops in his country, and force him from office.
He told foreign journalists that a US military plane entered Venezuelan air space twice last week without authorization.
Politicians and media from outside the country have been trying to sow chaos in Venezuela to justify intervention, he said.
“This whole campaign, has a centre. There is an axis: Madrid, Miami and Washington,” he said.
“But there is a centre of planning, of direction, lobbying, strength and funding. That centre is located in Washington.”
Nicolas Maduro promised to fight back and to do everything in his power “to continue winning the battle for internal peace”.
He also made reference to the recent suspension of Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff to face an impeachment trial.
Nicolas Maduro described the process as a coup, backed by foreign powers.
Venezuela is facing a serious economic crisis, with high inflation and shortage of many basic goods.
Nicolas Maduro accuses Venezuela’s elite of boycotting the economy to achieve its political goals.
The opposition blames the mistaken policies of Nicolas Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chavez, for the crisis.
Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro won’t be ousted by a referendum because there will be no referendum, Vice-President Aristobulo Isturiz has said.
Two weeks ago, opposition politicians began the process by handing in a petition signed by 1.85 million people.
However, Aistobulo Isturiz said the opposition had “acted too late, had done it wrong and had committed fraud”.
Members of the opposition have previously warned the referendum may be hard to push through, as they alleged that the National Electoral Council (CNE) is staffed by government loyalists.
Nicolas Maduro has announced that three air force generals have been arrested for plotting an uprising against his government
Many Venezuelans blame President Nicolas Maduro for the economic crisis the country is experiencing.
Venezuela’s economy contracted by 5.7% last year and is expected to shrink further this year. Inflation is at 180%, according to official figures, and there are shortages of medicines and basic food items.
On May 13, Nicolas Maduro declared a state of emergency to “denounce, neutralize and overcome the external and foreign aggressions against our country”, which he blames for Venezuela’s economic problems.
Nicolas Maduro did not specify what powers the state of emergency would give him except to say it would offer Venezuelans “fuller, more comprehensive protection”.
On May 2, opposition politicians handed in 80 boxes containing 1.85 million signatures to the CNE, well above the 1% of voters on the electoral roll needed to kick-start the process.
Opposition politicians say the authorities are trying to stall the process and have called on their supporters to march to the offices of the CNE on May 18 to demand they verify the signatures so the process can go ahead.
The timing of a potential recall referendum is key because the outcome could be radically different depending on when it is held.
Under Venezuela’s constitution, if President Nicolas Maduro were to be removed by a recall referendum in his last two years in office, he would be replaced by his Vice-President, Aristobulo Isturiz.
However, if Nicolas Maduro were to be recalled before that, new elections would be triggered.
The opposition sees it as essential to have new elections rather than have Aristobulo Isturiz take over power, as he is seen as a loyal member of Nicolas Maduro’s Socialist Unity Party.
For new elections to be held, the recall referendum would have to go against Nicolas Maduro before January 10, 2017.
In a speech to supporters in Venezuela’s capital Caracas, President Nicolas Maduro has threatened the seizure of factories that have stopped production, and the jailing of their owners.
Nicolas Maduro said Venezuela had to recover the means of production, to counter its deep economic crisis.
On May 13, the president introduced a new, nationwide state of emergency.
Meanwhile, opposition protesters have been rallying in Caracas to push for a recall vote to eject Nicolas Maduro from power.
The Venezuelan leader said the state of emergency was needed to combat foreign aggression, which he blamed for the country’s problems.
Nicolas Maduro said military exercises would take place next weekend to counter “foreign threats”.
Venezuela has the world’s largest oil reserves but its economy has been severely hit by falling global oil prices. The country’s economy contracted by 5.7% last year and its official inflation rate is estimated to be topping 180%.
There are severe shortages of food, medicines and basic goods which Nicolas Maduro argues are due to business leaders and the US waging an economic war against his government.
The threat to seize closed factories came after Venezuela’s largest food and beverage company, the Polar Group, halted production of beer, blaming government mismanagement for stopping it importing barley.
The Polar Group’s billionaire owner, Lorenzo Mendoza, is a fierce critic of President Nicolas Maduro.
Nicolas Maduro told supporters at the Caracas rally: “We must take all measures to recover productive capacity, which is being paralyzed by the bourgeoisie.
“Anyone who wants to halt [production] to sabotage the country should get out, and those who do must be handcuffed and sent to the PGV [Venezuelan General Penitentiary].
“We’re going to tell imperialism and the international right that the people are present, with their farm instruments in one hand and a gun in the other… to defend this sacred land.”
On May 13, President Nicolas Maduro declared a full-blown state of emergency, expanding the state of “economic emergency” he had announced in January.
In an address to the nation, Nicolas Maduro said the measures would be in place for three months but would likely be extended over 2017.
The president did not specify if there would be limits to other constitutional rights but he said the decree would provide “a fuller, more comprehensive protection for our people.”
A previous state of emergency was implemented in states near the Colombian border in 2015.
It suspended constitutional guarantees in those areas but did not suspend guarantees related to human rights.
Venezuela’s Minister for Communication and Information Luis Jose Marcano said the state of emergency would allow the government more resources to distribute food, basic goods and medicines.
Luis Jose Marcano added that it also created “mechanisms for the security forces to be able to guarantee public order needed because of the threats by armed groups”.
The opposition has collected and submitted a petition with 1.8 million signatures in favor of a referendum on Nicolas Maduro, but the National Electoral Board (CNE) has so far not verified them.
The verification process was supposed to take five days but 12 days have already elapsed.
Opposition activists say authorities are not letting them proceed to the next stage when they must collect another four million signatures.
Addressing the crowds on May 14, opposition leader and former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles said: “We want a country without queues, where we can find medicines. We want change.”
Henrique Capriles described Venezuela as a “time bomb that can explode at any given moment”.
According to the Venezuelan Constitution, if a referendum is held before the end of the year, a recall vote against Nicolas Maduro would trigger new elections.
Venezuela’s stores will halve their work hours to four a day in order to comply with the government’s energy rationing rules.
According to ministers, a severe drought caused by El Nino has brought 18 of Venezuela’s hydro-electric dams to critically low water levels.
A spokesman for Venezuela’s retail association said the drop in working hours would have an impact on jobs.
The state energy corporation (Corpoelec) had wanted cuts twice a day, between 1PM and 3PM and then again between 7PM and 9PM.
The retail association, The Chamber of Venezuelan Commercial Centers (Cavececo), said it had made an alternative proposal: that stores should open late at 12:00 and close at 19:00 saving five hours of energy use daily.
However, they had not received a response to this suggestion, the organization said.
Cavececo said opening and closing twice in a day would be disastrous for banking operations, health centers, servicing companies, pharmacies, supermarkets and particularly restaurants that depended on electrical energy to preserve and refrigerate their products.
However, the reduction to only four hours a day would also have an impact on businesses that ran two work shifts which represents around 75% of employees in shopping centers.
The Venezuelan government has also asked private residences to start saving energy and has been rationing domestic water supplies since January.