Venezuelans Petition to Boot Chavez

Opponents of President Hugo Chavez (search) revived a nationwide movement to force him from office, turning out en masse to sign a petition demanding a recall vote.

Chanting anti-Chavez slogans as they waited in block-long lines Friday, government foes predicted the president's imminent downfall as they began a four-day signature drive for a presidential recall.

The opposition needs 2.4 million signatures to force a vote next year. Results of the drive will not be known for weeks and Chavez has vowed to challenge every signature.

"I'm confident my signature will help oust this president and bring us a solution to the crisis tearing this country apart," said Marianella Amaral, 67, waiting with a grandson at a collection center in Caracas (search).

Venezuela (search) has lurched from crisis to crisis -- including a short-lived 2002 coup and a two-month general strike that fizzled in February -- since the opposition began pushing for Chavez's ouster two years ago.

Friday's drive was mostly peaceful, with 60,000 troops deployed to keep order at nearly 3,000 sign-up booths across the country.

The constitution allows recall votes halfway through a president's six-year term. Chavez passed that mark in August.

But this oil-rich South American nation of 24 million people remains divided over Chavez, a former paratrooper who was elected in 1998 and re-elected to a six-year term in 2000.

Unemployment has soared to around 20 percent, however, supporters consider Chavez the only hope for change after decades of corruption and neglect of Venezuela's poor. Opponents say Chavez is gradually imposing a leftist dictatorship on the world's No. 5 oil exporter.

In May, the Organization of American States (search), the United Nations and the U.S.-based Carter Center (search) got both sides to agree to play by constitutional rules in anticipation of a possible signature drive.

The OAS sees the drive and referendum as means of averting more upheaval.

Chavez predicts opponents won't collect enough signatures for a recall vote. He vowed Friday to win the next presidential elections in 2006 and to hand power over to another "revolutionary in 2013."

"There's no turning back," Chavez said.

Opposition leaders claimed Friday's turnout was overwhelming.

"I saw lines that extended several blocks today. It was impressive," said opposition lawmaker Geraldo Blyde, who called last week's pro-Chavez drive "small and sullen."

Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel played down Friday's turnout, saying it was being exaggerated by opposition-aligned news media.

"They're trying to fool a lot of people using the media, but these ploys always fail," Rangel said.

The opposition also sought recalls against 34 pro-Chavez lawmakers.

Venezuela's labor ministry filed a formal complaint alleging that business owners were forcing employees to sign against Chavez. Opposition leaders accused state security forces of seizing petitions at some booths.

Election officials said they were investigating both claims.