by Humberto Marquez
(IPS) CARACAS -- Venezuela will hold a recall vote for President Hugo Chavez, it was confirmed Thursday, after the election authorities announced that the opposition had gathered enough signatures to trigger a referendum.
The valid signatures total at least 2.451 million, according to the National Electoral Council. That exceeds the minimum of 2.436 million, or 20 percent of registered voters, needed to convene a referendum.
Although the results are only preliminary, they reflect "a clear tendency," according to the election council.
The announcement was based on the verification of nearly 90 percent of the signatures confirmed over the weekend, in a three-day "repairs" period in which 1.2 million petition signers were invited to come out and ratify or withdraw their signatures, whose validity had been questioned. Most of the disputed signatures were confirmed.
The next question is when the referendum will be held -- a crucial detail.
If a recall vote takes place before Aug. 19 and the president is defeated, an early election will be held, while if he loses a referendum organized after that date, Vice-President Josˇ Vicente Rangel, appointed by Chavez, would complete the presidential term that ends in January 2007.
Francisco Carrasquero, the head of the five-member election board, an independent body made up of three pro-Chavez and two opposition figures, said the referendum would likely be held on Aug. 8.
"We will accept no delays or tricks by the government to postpone the referendum beyond Aug. 19, because that would be a fraud of the constitution and a coup d'etat against the popular will," said Enrique Mendoza, the head of the Democratic Coordinator opposition coalition, which carried out the petition drive.
Information Minister Jesse Chacon called for calm and said Chavez would speak Thursday night in a nationally broadcast radio and TV address to express his position "and explain the next steps to be taken in this process of change."
Chavez has repeatedly stated that he would accept the election council's final verdict, take part in a referendum if enough signatures were collected, and step down if he lost.
Chacon said "it has been reported that there are some 15,000 signatures above the required minimum."
Thousands of Chavez supporters gathered outside the government palace as night fell to express their support for the president and listen to his speech. Lower income sectors comprise most of the president's support base.
In middle-class neighborhoods of Caracas and other cities, meanwhile, Venezuelans opposed to Chavez took to the streets to celebrate the success of the recall drive.
Both the opposition coalition and government parties announced street demonstrations in Caracas over the weekend.
The possibility of a referendum was agreed by the government and the opposition a year ago as a mechanism to overcome the crisis of governability in Venezuela.
Chavez survived a short-lived April 2002 coup d'etat and a December 2002-January 2003 two-month general strike by the opposition that virtually paralyzed the oil industry, the backbone of the Venezuelan economy.
The agreement was brokered by the Organization of American States (OAS) and the Carter Center led by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter (1977-1981), which set up missions in Venezuela that closely followed each step of the recall process. Both organizations say the process has maintained transparency.
Followers of the ruling parties and the opposition also collected signatures to seek referendums against dozens of lawmakers on either side, in an effort to modify the balance of forces in the 165-member parliament, where pro-Chavez legislators hold 85 seats and his opponents 80.
But the election council announced Thursday that enough signatures were only collected to hold recall votes for nine opposition parliamentarians. If they are defeated, the majority enjoyed by the governing coalition in Congress would grow, but not enough to achieve the two-thirds vote needed to give it a special majority.
Shortly before the election council reported the results of last weekend's signature verification process, political violence broke out again on the streets of Caracas when shots were fired at the city hall, which is in the hands of the opposition.
Groups of supposed Chavez supporters also threw stones at the offices of the opposition-aligned El Nacional newspaper and the Radio Caracas TV station, and set fire to several vehicles.
An opposition lawmaker, Rafael Marin, was attacked by several individuals as he was driving his car in downtown Caracas. He was wounded by a blow to the head with an iron bar.
Marin, who police said was linked to an incursion last month by Colombian paramilitaries wearing Venezuelan uniforms who were captured near Caracas, was the only person to sustain significant injuries.
Since 2002, the international community has been calling for a "peaceful, democratic, constitutional and electoral" solution to the crisis in Venezuela.
OAS Secretary-General Cesar Gaviria remains in Venezuela and will present a report to the regional body's general assembly that begins to meet Sunday in Quito, Ecuador. Nobel Peace laureate Carter also visited Caracas over the weekend.
The process has also been closely followed by an ad hoc group of "friends" of the OAS secretary-general, created on the initiative of Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and made up of Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Portugal, Spain and the United States.
The Democratic Coordinator claimed it had collected 2.569 million signatures. Mendoza said "We made it, thanks to the democratic spirit of our people."
"This is a victory based on our unity, and we will maintain it, to win the recall vote," he added, while the leaders of dozens of opposition parties and civil society groups embraced and uncorked bottles of champagne.
There are nearly 13 million registered voters in this country of 25 million. At least 3.757 million votes will be needed -- the number of voters who elected the president in July 2000 -- to remove him from office.
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