Opposition steps up anti-Chavez drive

The opposition in Venezuela has crossed a major hurdle in its attempt to oust President Hugo Chavez by collecting more than the required signatures to seek a recall vote.

    The populist president is trying to stave off a third attempt to displace him

    The opposition newspaper El Nuevo Pais reported on Monday that 2.4 million signatures had

    been collected by Sunday. It added that the figure would reach more than three million.

    The legal requirement for a referendum is 2.1 million.

    "The referendum will show that at least two out of every three Venezuelans want the

    president to leave," editor Rafael Poleo said in a front page column.

    According to Venezuelan law, the president can be removed after mid-term in


    Chavez was ousted from power for two days, following a coup in April 2001 and by a general

    strike a year later.

    Chavez cries foul

    Chavez still commands immense
    following among the poor

    The embattled president accused the opposition of trying to remove him fraudulently. He said

    on state television that the petition drive was "shaping up to be an attempted mega-fraud

    that the Venezuelan people will not tolerate".

    He pointed out to discrepancies between signatures and electoral rolls and said signers had

    been pressured.

    William Lara, a former legislator and staunch Chavez supporter, called on the president's

    supporters to hold a rally.

    Lara added that he would "inform international observers" of the "irregularities that

    clearly characterise a fraud on the part of the opposition."

    The opposition had sent out vehicles to transport voters who had not yet cast ballots to

    the polls.

    "Let's all go towards the mega-victory of peace, reconciliation and democracy," said Enrique

    Mendoza, leader of the Democratic Coordinator, the umbrella group that brings together the

    leading anti-Chavez forces.

    Tight security

    Sixty thousand troops and 12,000 extra police were deployed across the country to prevent

    incidents. The opposition complained that some soldiers held up the petitioning with demands

    for identity papers.

    Chavez enjoys massive support among poor Venezuelans for his populist policies, but is seen

    with distrust by the business community and many in the middle class who accuse him of

    ruining the economy.

    The president announced last Friday that he would run for another six-year term in the 2006




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