CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) – Venezuela is bracing for turbulence after the socialist government blocked a presidential recall referendum in a move opposition leaders are calling a coup.
The opposition is urging supporters to take to the streets, beginning with a march on a major highway Saturday led by the wives of jailed activists, while a leading government figure is calling for the arrest of high-profile government critics.
Polls suggest socialist President Nicolas Maduro would lose a recall vote. But that became a moot issue on Thursday when elections officials issued an order suspending a recall signature drive a week before it was to start.
"What we saw yesterday was a coup," said former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, who had been the leading champion of the recall effort. "We'll remain peaceful, but we will not be taken for fools. We must defend our country."
International condemnation was swift. Twelve western hemisphere nations, including the U.S. and even leftist-run governments such as Chile and Uruguay, said in a statement Friday that the suspension of the referendum and travel restrictions on the opposition leadership affects the prospect for dialogue and finding a peaceful solution to the nation's crisis.
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The socialists won power nearly two decades ago with the election of the popular former President Hugo Chavez, and for years enjoyed easy election victories. But with the economy in free fall, polls show most Venezuelans have turned against the party, and over the years, the administration has gradually become increasingly autocratic.
Critical television stations have been closed and several leading opposition activists have been imprisoned. The country's supreme court, packed with government supporters, has endorsed decree powers for Maduro and said he can ignore Congress following a landslide victory for the opposition in legislative elections.
The election commission, which has issued a string of pro-government rulings, halted the recall process on grounds of alleged irregularities in a first-round of signature gathering.
Polls suggest 80 percent of voters wanted Maduro gone this year, and the electoral council on Tuesday also ordered a delay of about six months in gubernatorial elections that were slated for year-end which the opposition was heavily favored to win. It gave no reason for the delay.
The opposition charges that the socialist party has simply decided to put off elections indefinitely in the face of overwhelming voter discontent.
The opposition coalition has called for a massive street protest Wednesday, on what would have been the start of the signature-gathering campaign.
Maduro was traveling outside the country, but in a televised address Friday he urged calm at home.
"I call on everyone to remain peaceful, to engage in dialogue, respect law and order and not to do anything crazy," he said.
Meanwhile, one of his most powerful allies, Diosdado Cabello, said top opposition leaders should be jailed for attempting election fraud. And opposition leaders said a local court blocked eight of their leaders from leaving the country.
Amid the rising tensions, former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero, who for months has been attempting to mediate dialogue between the two sides, is in Caracas and expected to meet Saturday with representatives of the opposition and the government.
The opposition had centered its energy on rallying Venezuelans to sign petitions next week demanding a referendum on Maduro's removal. That would require collecting and validating 4 million signatures from 20 percent of the electorate within three days in each of the country's 24 states.
"This is a big deal and reveals that the government was fearful of what could happen in the three-day signature collection period. They have effectively postponed the recall referendum indefinitely. This measure makes it difficult to think of Venezuela as a democracy," said David Smilde, a Venezuela expert at the Washington Office on Latin America.
But the campaign had already become mostly symbolic because the election board ruled in September that no vote would take place this year.
That timing is crucial. A successful vote to oust Maduro this year would have triggered a presidential election and given the opposition a good shot at winning power. If Maduro is voted out in 2017, though, his vice president will finish the presidential term, leaving the socialists in charge.
The electoral council said Thursday the decision was based on rulings by courts in four states that found there was fraud in the initial stage of the petition drive, when the opposition collected signatures from 1 percent of electorate.
The council itself had validated those signatures in August and allowed the process to move forward. It gave no indication if or when the process would resume.
The move sparked a new round of international condemnation of the socialist government.
Republican Florida Sen.Marco Rubio called Friday for increased sanctions on Venezuela, the head of the Organization of American States promised concrete consequences for violating democratic norms, and U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby said the elections board was being used to block voters' "right to determine the direction of their country."