CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuela's electoral council on Tuesday took steps to allow opponents of President Nicolas Maduro to try and initiate a recall referendum against the socialist leader.
The electoral authority delivered to opposition representatives the petition sheets needed to collect around 200,000 signatures to schedule a formal petition drive. The decision would normally draw scant attention except that the process had been mired by administrative hurdles that the opposition sees as an attempt by the government-stacked institution to protect Maduro.
Reflecting some of those tensions, a small group of government supporters hurled insults and threats against opposition leaders arriving to the downtown headquarters of the electoral council Tuesday, forcing them to briefly seek cover in the offices of the opposition-controlled congress across the street.
Although Maduro's approval rating has plummeted amid spiraling triple-digit inflation, a deep recession and widespread shortages, booting him from office won't be easy.
Just scheduling a referendum requires yet another petition drive, in which the opposition must gather signatures from 20 percent of the electorate, or around 4 million voters. And if the vote were ever held, the president would be removed only if the number of anti-Maduro votes exceeded the 7.6 million votes he received in the 2013 election.
In December's parliamentary elections, opposition candidates mustered only 7.7 million even though they won control of the legislature by a landslide.
Timing is also of the essence for the opposition because for new elections to be called, Maduro would need to be removed by year end. After that, his six-year term ending in 2019 would be completed by his vice president — a move seen as unlikely to produce the radical change many Venezuelans are clamoring for.
Still, the scope of the opposition's victory, as partial as it may seem, shouldn't be underestimated given the potential for foot-dragging at all levels of government, said David Smilde, a Tulane University sociologist who has lived in Venezuela for decades. Already, the government-stacked Supreme Court has stymied a number of laws approved by the opposition congress and on Monday struck down an attempt by lawmakers to pass a constitutional amendment cutting short Maduro's term.
"This could've been a sticking point because at any point the process can get hung up for weeks or months," said Smilde.
The immediate consequences are likely to deflate social tensions and more-strident calls for street protests like the ones that in 2014 led to the death of more than 40 people. A march called by the opposition Wednesday to demand action from the electoral council is now being revamped as an event to collect signatures, several opposition leaders said.
It's also likely to ease international pressure on Maduro, who has been fighting criticism from the U.S. and others that his government is blocking attempts at a peaceful democratic transition. This week, an opposition congressional delegation was scheduled to travel to Washington where they were expected to ask the Organization of American States to initiate proceedings to suspend Venezuela from the hemispheric group.
The OAS' Secretary General Luis Almargo, a harsh critic of the way the government tried to tilt the playing field ahead of December's legislative elections, expressed on Twitter his "satisfaction" the "positive decision" taken by the electoral council.