Caracas (AFP) - Opponents of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro hope to hold a referendum on removing him from office as early as November, a leading opposition figure said Wednesday.
The center-right opposition has started gathering signatures to launch the first step towards a referendum to get rid of the socialist leader, whom they blame for an economic crisis and rising unrest.
"If the country is mobilized to enforce democratic ways, to oblige the government to accept the recall referendum as a constitutional device, we would be talking about a referendum in late November or early December," Henrique Capriles, a former presidential candidate, said in a radio interview.
Maduro's opponents advanced Tuesday in their mission to drive him from office when the National Electoral Board handed over the paperwork allowing them to seek the nearly 200,000 signatures needed as a first step towards calling a referendum.
But the road to a referendum could be complicated. Analysts say Maduro's allies could slow down the process until January 2017, at which point Maduro could legally be replaced for the rest of his term by his vice-president.
Maduro's opponents say he controls the electoral authorities and the Supreme Court, which has blocked several of their bills in the legislature.
Analysts and some politicians have warned that public discontent could lead to mass unrest in the country, which is already ranked by the United Nations as one of the most violent in the world.
Capriles said the recall referendum was "a means of avoiding an explosion" of social unrest.
Emergency measures imposed by the government in recent weeks such as daily electricity blackouts to save power have raised discontent among citizens who were already suffering shortages of medicines and basic goods.
"We do not want an explosion of unrest nor a coup," he said, but warned: "The opposition does not have the capacity to contain an overflow of social tension."
Looting and street clashes have been reported in recent days in various towns and cities including the country's second-biggest city, Maracaibo.