CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) – Venezuela is in terrible shape. Two-thirds of voters say in polls they want President Nicolás Maduro gone amid worsening shortages and inflation. It seems like the job of the opposition would be easy.
But critics of the country's 17-year-old socialist government are reeling after elections officials torpedoed their primary political effort for the year — a campaign to recall Maduro and hold an early presidential election.
Electoral officials said last week that the opposition could go ahead and try to trigger the recall by collecting signatures from 20 percent of voters over three days at the end of October, but if they should succeed, the recall vote would not be held until next year.
The decision all but assures the socialists will remain in power until the next regularly scheduled presidential election in 2018. If Maduro is not recalled before the midpoint of his term, which come before year's end, by law he would be replaced by his vice president instead of through a new vote.
The ruling has divided the always-fractious Democratic Unity coalition of three dozen opposition parties. Some want to press on with the signature-gathering drive as a show of force, while others say the electoral body's decision confirms what they have argued all along: that working within a system controlled by the ruling party is pointless, and what Venezuela needs is a new round of street protests.
Opposition leaders spent the weekend holed up at an upscale hotel in wealthy eastern Caracas to decide how to proceed and were expected to make an announcement Monday afternoon.
Not all of them were heeding Democratic Unity Secretary-General Jesus Torrealba's call to refrain from commenting until a decision on the way forward.
"It is time for civil disobedience," former presidential candidate Maria Corina Machado said on Twitter.
Other hardliners joined her in saying the rules laid out by the government make it impossible to gather the 4 million signatures needed to trigger a recall vote. Elections officials are requiring the opposition gather signatures from 20 percent of the electorate in each state, as opposed to nationwide. They also plan to open centers for electronically verifying signers' government-registered fingerprints for just seven hours a day on Oct. 26-28, with an hour off for lunch.
The opposition also says there will not be nearly enough fingerprint-registry centers. For example the remote jungle state of Delta Amacuro will have just 10. Nationwide there will only be 5,400 — a quarter of what the opposition had been seeking.
The electoral council's ruling has drawn international condemnation, including from the United States, where State Department spokesman John Kirby said the conditions "deprive Venezuelan citizens the opportunity to shape the course of their country." Organization of American States Secretary-General Luis Almagro accused election officials of presiding over the erasure of Venezuelans' democratic rights.
The Venezuelan professional class that makes up the bedrock of the opposition's support is eager for a quick response. Anti-Maduro candidates swept legislative elections in December in the biggest defeat yet for the movement started by the late Hugo Chávez, but they have been outmaneuvered ever since with their legislation blocked by the government-stacked supreme court.
Meanwhile, the economy has only gone further into its tailspin as the price of oil remains low. Many basic foodstuffs and medicines have become impossible to find without turning to the black market, driving Maduro's approval ratings down to a nine-month low of 21 percent.
Energy sector worker Oscar Rangel said the news that the referendum will not happen this year was disheartening for people in desperate need of hope.
"I have two relatives in Caracas with cancer. Without the referendum, I don't see a way that they will get the treatment that they need," he said.
After watching the momentum of anti-government protests in 2014 fade in the face of a government crackdown, the opposition has been getting back its nerve. On Sept. 1, hundreds of thousands of pro-recall demonstrators took to the streets of Caracas in what was the biggest street protest in years.
But subsequent demonstrations have been sparsely attended. The opposition's inconsistent ability to rally supporters was on display the very night of the Sept. 1 protest: At a plaza that is the opposition's traditional stronghold, only a few people could be heard heeding a call to bang pots and pans in protest.
Political analyst Dimitris Pantoulas said that should the opposition push forward with the signature drive, the outcome of those three days in October could determine Venezuela's fate for the next three years.
"The government is gambling everything on this, and the opposition is, too," Pantoulas said. "If the opposition doesn't get the 20 percent, it will have lost its most powerful weapon. How are you going to ask a president to resign if you couldn't even get 20 percent of the electorate on board?"