Venezuelan Electoral Panel Halts Effort to Recall President Nicolás Maduro


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Protestors in Caracas, Venezuela, on Friday demanded the removal of President Nicolás Maduro.

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Federico Parra/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

CARACAS, Venezuela — Leaders of Venezuela’s opposition on Friday angrily called on citizens to take to the streets after the country’s electoral commission suspended a drive for a referendum to remove President Nicolás Maduro.

Speaking to a packed news conference, Henrique Capriles, a two-time presidential candidate, described the commission’s decision as a “coup” intended to keep Mr. Maduro in power.

“We warned that this could happen, and this is exactly what we wanted to avoid with the referendum,” Mr. Capriles said. “This only deepens the crisis that Venezuelans are living through.”

The battle over the recall movement appeared to escalate the conflict between the opposition and Mr. Maduro’s leftist government. Although the opposition controls the country’s congress, Mr. Maduro and his allies dominate all the other institutions of government, including the courts and the electoral commission.

Mr. Maduro, blamed by many Venezuelans for the country’s economic collapse, has described the recall effort as a coup attempt.

He was elected in 2013 to succeed Hugo Chávez, the charismatic former army officer who had founded the populist leftist movement. Mr. Chávez’s many ambitious programs were financed with revenue from oil, Venezuela’s main export. But the global collapse of petroleum prices helped send the economy into a tailspin, with shortages of food, medicine and electricity.

The opposition had seen the recall referendum as its only legal path to challenge Mr. Maduro’s increasingly autocratic rule. Last week, the Supreme Court ruled that the court itself could approve the national budget, bypassing the congress altogether.

“We put up with abuses and we asked the people for patience, but they have crossed the line,” said a furious Mr. Capriles, who is typically more measured in his public remarks. In a show of unity, he was surrounded by the leaders of other opposition parties.

The electoral commission based its decision, announced late Thursday, on rulings by four regional courts that had accepted challenges to the validity of signatures that were collected earlier in the referendum process.

At the same time, a court ordered eight opposition leaders, including Mr. Capriles, to remain in the country.

The opposition was preparing a three-day campaign beginning Wednesday to gather the nearly four million signatures required to trigger the referendum, roughly 20 percent of voters.

Instead, Mr. Capriles called on Venezuelans to begin a “national mobilization” that day. “We said it, if they take away the right of the people, we were going to take Venezuela,” he said.

But he was short on specific proposals, promising only a special legislative session on Sunday.

There was urgency to the referendum schedule. A majority vote, if the referendum to remove Mr. Maduro had been held this year, would have forced a new presidential election. Delaying it until next year would mean that Mr. Maduro’s vice president would serve as president until 2019.

As the electoral commission announced its decision, Mr. Maduro left for a Middle East tour to bolster support for oil production cuts that could raise prices.

Margarita López Maya, a researcher at the Center for Development Studies at the Central University of Venezuela, said the commission had heightened the country’s political conflict.

“The government kicked the chessboard over, and now we’re in another game,” she said.

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