Venezuela recall faces 'impossible' conditions; turnout low

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A mural of late President Hugo Chavez decorates a street wall where a table is set up, by the National Election Council (CNE), where people can sign a petition in favor of holding a referendum to remove President Nicolas Maduro from office in Caracas, Venezuela, Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2022. The signatures of 20 percent of registered voter must be collected within 12 hours to request a presidential recall, a CNE rule that Maduro's opposition criticizes as impossible. (AP Photo/Matias Delacroix)

CARACAS – Venezuelans got a chance on to demand a recall of President Nicolás Maduro on Wednesday — but a government-friendly electoral board imposed limits that backers said were impossible to meet. That added to complaints about a system sharply tilted in favor of the governing socialist party.

The National Electoral Council said that nearly 4.2 million people at a minimum would have to sign petitions for a recall within a 12-hour period at 1,200 electoral centers.

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That would require multiple signatures a minute at each of the voting centers —- and there was no sign of such a turnout Wednesday at several centers visited by The Associated Press in the nation's capital, Caracas.

“The recall referendum is absolutely blocked,” Luis Lander, director of the independent Venezuelan Electoral Observatory, said this week. “The conditions make it absolutely and totally impossible.”

Venezuela's constitution allows voters to petition for a recall election once a president has served half of his term, as has Maduro, whose second six-year term ends in 2024. Twenty percent of voters in each state must sign such a petition to call for a recall vote.

The electoral commission, with a 3-to-2 majority favorable to the government, announced Friday that it would accept such petitions, but imposed the narrow time limit for collecting them. The near-term date also complicated any organization by the opposition.

Nicmer Evans, a member of Venezuelan Movement for Recall that filed a request for the recall, complained on Twitter that the conditions were imposed without consultation and were unconstitutional.

Many Venezuelans had no idea petitions were being collected on Wednesday.

“I knew about the process, but I didn't know it was today,” said Gémini Pino, a 55-year-old physician who was passing near a signature center. “If I see where the places are, I will sign. But I have participated in so many (similar efforts) that I don't know if anything will be achieved today.”

Perkins González, a retired 57-year-old, did sign, but said he learned of the process only in the morning itself. He said voting is the way to make change, “but I think there are a lot of obstacles” imposed by officials.

An attempt to recall Maduro in 2016 was suspended by the electoral council at the order of local courts.

The effort comes on the heels of regional elections across the country that saw the government win a heavy majority of local races — but lose a highly symbolic gubernatorial vote in Barinas state, the homeland of the late former President Hugo Chavez, who founded the ruling socialist movement.

That victory itself showed a system that permits democratic elections under what voting monitors say are deeply undemocratic conditions: The first opposition candidate was disqualified while leading in the vote count. When a repeat election was called, the first- and second-choice opposition replacement candidates were blocked from running. Finally, a previously obscure fourth opposition contender won.

Important opposition leaders have been arrested or banned from running, nearly all major independent or pro-opposition media have been closed or taken over and the last time the opposition had a major victory — winning control of congress in 2015 — the government effectively ignored it by creating a sort of super-legislature dominated by loyalist that overruled it.

The U.S. and European Union consider Maduro's 2018 reelection invalid due to the electoral conditions.

Meanwhile, a major government figure, Diosdado Cabello, told a news conference Monday that the ruling party would have the right to see the names of those who signed the petition against the president — raising concerns they could face reprisals.

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