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Venezuelan poll body approves Chavez referendum

By Patrick Markey

CARACAS, Venezuela, Nov. 27 — Venezuela's election authorities agreed on Thursday to hold in February a nonbinding referendum demanded by the opposition on whether President Hugo Chavez should resign, an option dismissed by the populist leader who refuses to step down.

The consultative vote, scheduled for Feb. 2, would not legally force Chavez from office. But his foes believe a decisive rejection would deliver a political defeat that could press the leftist president into resigning and trigger elections in the world's No. 5 oil exporter.
Alfredo Avella, president of the National Electoral Council, said the institution that oversees elections agreed to stage the popular referendum on the question of whether Chavez should resign immediately from office.
The proposed referendum will likely become caught up in fierce legal wrangling in the Supreme Court and the National Assembly as the government contests its validity.
The referendum has become the latest focus of the long-running political conflict between Chavez, a former paratrooper elected in 1998, and his enemies who accuse him of dictatorial rule and blame his left-wing reforms for destroying the nation's economy.
Opposition leaders earlier this month handed in more than 2 million signatures demanding the immediate vote. They have threatened to stage a general strike on Monday if the government does not accept the referendum and a broader electoral accord during ongoing peace talks brokered by the Organization of American States.
Opposition officials could not be reached after the electoral council ruling, but they insisted on Wednesday they would press ahead with their planned strike. They are also demanding the government reverse a recent military takeover of the Caracas city police from the capital's anti-Chavez mayor.
Opening the way for possible legal salvos from the government, electoral council member Romulo Rangel disagreed with the decision because he said the elections body failed to met constitutional requirements.
''This in my personal opinion does nothing but fail the rights of the citizens calling for the referendum and puts the institution on the margins of the law,'' he told a news conference early on Thursday.

Chavez has repeatedly insisted the constitution only allows for a revocatory or binding referendum on his mandate in August 2003 -- halfway through his current term.
The tough-talking leader, who survived a coup by rebel officers in April, said on Sunday he would not resign even if 90 percent of the electorate voted against him in a consultative poll.
''Even if the electoral council accepts the question as valid, even if the Supreme Court considers the question valid, even if they get 90 percent of the vote with their referendum, I will not resign,'' the president said.
Fours years after his landslide election victory, the president's popularity has plummeted as the nation's economic troubles mount and the opposition steps up its campaign to oust him from office.
Chavez says he retains strong support for his policies aimed at easing poverty and stamping out corruption. Millions of poorer voters still see his self-styled ''revolution'' as the path to a better life.
The level of support for Monday's planned walkout remains uncertain. Anti-Chavez executives in the vital state oil industry have left the decision whether to participate up to individual workers, while blue-collar oil workers appear split.
Tensions have flared in recent weeks since the government ordered troops into the streets of Caracas to enforce the police takeover. At least two people were killed and dozens were wounded in clashes this month involving militants from both sides.

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