Caracas (AFP) - Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro late Tuesday taunted his political opponents after they hit an apparent roadblock in efforts to oust him from office.
Opposition leaders must hold a recall referendum by January 10 if they are to succeed not only in removing Maduro but in staging new elections to replace his administration.
The National Electoral Council (CNE) has approved the first of two petitions required to organize a referendum, which they aim to do by the end of this year.
However, the election officials said Tuesday that a decisive step in triggering a referendum -- the collection of four million signatures on a recall petition -- probably could not be completed in time.
Maduro vowed Tuesday that his political enemies -- whom he has accused of fomenting public disorder and widespread unrest -- would fail.
"The violent plans that you have will be defeated by the conscience of a majority of the people," he declared during his weekly television program, in remarks he addressed to the opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD).
"We're going to guarantee peace, independence, political sovereignty and the Bolivarian revolution" the Venezuelan president declared invoking the political movement founded by his late mentor and predecessor Hugo Chavez.
The electoral council's president Tibisay Lucena said Tuesday that the gathering of signatures for the second petition "would take place around the end of October" on condition that "all the regulatory requirements are fulfilled."
Lucena said in a speech to top officials that if the opposition gathered the four million signatures required to spark a referendum, the CNE would then have a month to verify them. After that, she said, the CNE would have up to three months to hold the referendum.
That appeared to make it unlikely a referendum would be held by January as the opposition MUD demands.
In keeping with the constitution, if Maduro loses a referendum held after January 10, he would just transfer power to his handpicked deputy.
- Obstacles or delays -
The MUD blames the socialist president for an economic crisis that has led to food shortages, riots and looting.
A recent survey by pollster Venebarometro indicated that nearly two-thirds of voters would vote against Maduro, who has branded the economic crisis and the efforts to unseat him a capitalist conspiracy.
He has launched legal challenges against the referendum drive, alleging fraud in the petition process, and vowed there will be no recall vote this year.
Constitutional expert Jose Ignacio Hernandez calculated that the referendum could be held by January 4.
But he said that depended on the will of the CNE.
The opposition says Maduro controls the electoral authorities and accuses them of delaying the referendum procedures.
Electoral affairs specialist Eugenio Martinez said the referendum may not happen until February "if the CNE makes an effort to impose unnecessary delays."
The only top CNE member close to the opposition, Luis Emilio Rondon, told reporters "there is no legal, technological or logistical obstacle" to prevent the signatures from being gathered before October.
- Protest planned -
The opposition has called for a major national protest march to Caracas on September 1.
Senior opposition leader Henrique Capriles branded Lucena's announcement "an exercise in cynicism and lies."
The CNE "does not dare to say (openly) that there will not be a referendum this year," he told a news conference.
"It knows very well that blocking the constitutional and democratic path places Venezuela in a highly dangerous situation."
Anti-government protests in 2014 left 43 people dead.
Lucena in turn lashed out at the opposition. "Harassing the electoral authorities and their employees is a way of trying to distort the constitutional path," she said.
"Attempts are being made to apply maximum pressure to make the people think that the law is being applied arbitrarily."
An official appointed by Maduro to oversee the CNE's processing of the referendum request, Jorge Rodriguez, declared the initiative "legally and judicially dead."
"We had already said it was completely impossible to meet the deadlines to hold a recall referendum in 2016," he said.
"The way things are going and in light of the massive fraud that has been committed, I am sure there won't be one in 2017 either."