Venezuela's Supreme Court has raised another obstacle to an opposition drive for a referendum on recalling leftist President Nicolas Maduro, who is blamed for a deepening economic and political crisis.
Proponents of a recall already faced a high hurdle: they must collect signatures from 20 per cent of the electorate -- or about four million voters -- over a three-day period from October 26 to 28.
But in a ruling yesterday the Supreme Court raised the bar even higher by making it 20 per cent of the electorate in each of the country's 24 states in order to force a recall vote.
"The failure to collect that percentage in any of the states or the capital district would nullify the validity of a presidential recall referendum," the court said.
Maduro's popularity has plummeted as his oil-rich country has spiralled into chaos, with the economy now in its third year of a deep recession, exacerbated by the plunge in world oil prices.
Inflation is expected to top 700 per cent this year, and ordinary Venezuelans are struggling with widespread shortages of food and medicine.
The opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) has pushed for a recall vote as a constitutionally accepted way out of the crisis.
But Maduro keeps a tight hold on key levers of power, including the courts, which have backed him in moves aimed at neutralizing the opposition-controlled National Assembly and heading off a recall.
The opposition, meanwhile, is counting on an overwhelming turnout during the three-day signature drive to pressure the government to give way.
"It will be a moral recall," said Jesus Torrealba, MUD's executive secretary.
The opposition is pressing for a recall vote before January 10, even though the country's electoral authorities say there is not time to organize one this year.
The timing of the vote is key because under the constitution a successful recall before January 10 would lead to new elections. If Maduro is recalled after that date, he would hand over power to his handpicked vice-president.