Saturday September 13, 2003 7:39 AM
By ALEXANDRA OLSON
Associated Press Writer
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) - President Hugo Chavez won another round in Venezuela's bitter power struggle as election authorities threw out an opposition petition for a referendum on ending his rule.
The National Elections Council ruled Friday that opponents violated Venezuela's Constitution by conducting the petition drive before the midpoint of Chavez's six-year term - Aug. 19. Organizers collected more than 3 million signatures.
It was another victory for a president who survived an April 2002 military coup attempt and a long general strike earlier this year that accelerated Venezuela's economic recession.
Chavez, loved by many poor Venezuelans as the first leader to speak for their rights but despised by middle class citizens as a power-monger, vows never to allow the return of corrupt traditional political parties that crumbled with his rise to power.
A new uncertainty arose in the crisis-wracked nation as Chavez foes and followers argued over whether Venezuela's Constitution allows opponents to petition again for a recall.
Several leaders of Chavez's Fifth Republic Movement party insisted opponents, by failing to obtain approval for their petition, had given up their chances for ever holding the vote.
The constitution "is very clear in establishing that a request for a recall can only be made once," said Fifth Republic lawmaker Cilia Flores.
Opponent leaders vowed to launch another signature drive Oct. 5, insisting the constitution says no such thing. They said the council's decision was in some way a victory for the opposition because the rules of the game had become clearer.
"We are closer than ever to the end of violence and anxiety," said opposition Governor Enrique Mendoza.
Venezuela's Constitution allows citizens to petition for a recall halfway through a president's term. But it is vague on many details.
National Elections Council President Francisco Carrasquero promised to issue regulations on the referendum process next week. But he said the Supreme Court should decide whether opponents can introduce a new petition.
The United States has angered Chavez's government by supporting the referendum as a means of ensuring stability in the world's No. 5 oil exporter. Washington is uneasy about the Venezuelan leader's unabashed admiration for Cuban President Fidel Castro and his criticism of free trade.
A retired lieutenant colonel who staged a failed coup in 1992, Chavez was elected in 1998 and re-elected in 2000 after pushing through a new constitution he promised would bring a "revolution" to empower the poor. Critics said he eliminated checks on his power.
Chavez's rise rekindled the hopes of millions of Venezuelans frustrated with decades of corrupt governments and economic decline.
But recent independent polls indicate Venezuelans would vote 2-1 to oust Chavez in a referendum, disappointed with his failure to create jobs and fight crime. Chavez insists his own polls say he has 70 percent popular support and that most Venezuelans blame a "coup-plotting" opposition for the country's problems. http://www.guardian.co.uk/worldlatest/story/0,1280,-3141559,00.html