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Venezuelan council sets recall rules
( 2003-09-26 17:14) (Agencies)

Elections officials announced new rules for a referendum on ousting President Hugo Chavez, giving his opponents four days to collect enough signatures to request the vote, but ending opposition hopes for removing Chavez this year.

Venezuela's constitution allows citizens to petition for a recall halfway through a president's six-year term. But the document is unclear about many details.

On Sept. 17, the election council threw out an opposition petition for a referendum against Chavez because the 3.2 million signatures were gathered in February, before the midpoint of Chavez's term Aug. 19.

Under the new rules, opposition groups will have four days to gather at least 2.4 million signatures required to request a recall referendum, said Francisco Carrasquero, president of the National Elections Council.

Elections authorities must decide on the validity of the signatures within 30 days, he said. If the signatures are declared valid, the council must set a date for the vote within 97 days.

Petitions for the signature drive will be printed by the council and authorities from the institution must supervise the process to gather signatures. Those who sign petitions must also include a fingerprint on the form.

All three measures, which appeared in an earlier draft of the rules, had been criticized by opposition leaders arguing that such requirements could further delay a vote.

Earlier this week, Chavez said he would not accept rules for the referendum that don't oblige his opponents to collect the signatures in one day. He argued that Venezuelans who voted to re-elect him in 2000 did so in one day, so his foes should only have one day to gather signatures.

Opponents accuse Chavez, a former paratrooper who was first elected in 1998, of ignoring corruption in public administration and becoming increasingly authoritarian.

Chavez has said that traditional political parties only want power in order to regain privileges they lost when he took office.

The next presidential elections are in 2006, and Chavez has vowed to win that vote and continue governing until 2013.

The Organization of American States and the United Nations support the referendum as a means of preventing unrest in Venezuela, which has seen a brief military coup and a crippling two-month strike in the past 17 months.

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