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Last Updated: Tuesday, 16 March, 2004, 00:13 GMT
Venezuela court boosts poll hopes
An anti-Chavez protester at a barricade in Caracas on 3 March
The recent decision to dispute the signatures sparked protests
Venezuela's electoral authorities have been ordered to lift their objections to disputed signatures which back a referendum on Hugo Chavez's presidency.

The supreme court ruling marks the latest stage in the opposition's battle to trigger a vote which could force the left-wing president from office.

A check had been ordered of a million signatures collected by the opposition.

The government is expected to appeal to higher levels of the Supreme Court which deal with electoral issues.

Opposition leaders took their case to the supreme court, alleging that pro-Chavez officials at the National Electoral Council (CNE) had unfairly and intentionally blocked their campaign.

"The Electoral Chamber (of the Supreme Court) has put an end to the tricks, assaults and ambushes that the government was playing through the CNE," Henry Ramos of the Democratic Co-ordinator opposition coalition was quoted as saying.

Under scrutiny

The opposition campaigned late last year to collect a petition with enough valid signatures to call a referendum on Mr Chavez's presidency, as allowed under the Venezuelan constitution.

They needed 2.4 million signatures (20% of those on the electoral roll) for a referendum to be called, and said they had collected a total of 3.4 million.

However, the CNE said it could verify only 1.8 million signatures, and another 1.1 million needed further verification; 140,000 signatures were rejected outright.

Its decision announced on 2 March provoked demonstrations across Venezuela that left at least two people dead.

The ruling by the supreme court's electoral chamber can be overturned by its constitutional chamber.

The country's constitution allows it citizens to petition for a recall vote half-way through an elected official's term in office.

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