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Last Updated: Wednesday, 21 April, 2004, 14:03 GMT 15:03 UK
Possible date for Venezuela vote
Anti-Chavez referendum campaign posters, November 2003
Opponents of Chavez want to force a referendum on his presidency
Electoral authorities in Venezuela say they will announce on 4 June whether the country will hold a referendum on Hugo Chavez's presidency.

The decision follows a lengthy campaign by the opposition, which seeks to force the left-wing president out of office.

The president's opponents need more than 2.4 million signatures to trigger a vote, but only 1.9 million have been validated and checking is continuing.

If the required number is reached, the vote will take place on 8 August.

The ruling by the National Electoral Council (CNE) marks the latest stage in a confusing process which could eventually lead to President Chavez's removal from power through the ballot box.

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 were given four days to collect 2.4 million signatures - 20% of those on the electoral roll - in support of a referendum, and said they had collected a total of 3.4 million.

However, the CNE says it has verified just 1,910,965 signatures.

Bureaucratic complexity

Another 375,241 signatures have been rejected outright, because they apparently belong to people who are dead or not listed on the electoral roll.

That leaves another 1,192,914 signatures which have not yet been authenticated, but which have not been completely rejected either.

After a marathon 10-hour meeting that ended early on Wednesday morning, the CNE has now decided that these signatures will be checked over a five-day period beginning on 27 May, then re-counted over three days beginning on 1 June.

After that, they will announce whether the referendum can go ahead.

The bureaucratic complexity of the issue masks a bitter divide in Venezuelan society.

President Chavez's supporters see him as a champion of the poor, while his detractors see him as a wrecker of the Venezuelan economy with authoritarian tendencies.

Following the failure of a short-lived coup attempt against Mr Chavez in April 2002, the opposition seized on the referendum as a means of ousting him by peaceful means.

But Mr Chavez has described the opposition's vote-gathering drive as a "mega-fraud", further adding to the polarisation of the country.

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