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Friday, July 16, 1999 Published at 06:42 GMT 07:42 UK

World: Americas

Venezuelan president attacks election body

Mr Chavez usually takes questions from the audience on his chat shows

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has launched a stinging attack on the country's electoral authorities, accusing them of trying to muzzle him ahead of next week's constituent assembly elections.

The BBC's Peter Greste: Hugo Chavez has taken every opportunity to back his political allies
The National Electoral Council fined him $7,600 and pulled the plug on his weekly radio and television programmes, accusing him of using the broadcasts to promote his candidates for the constituent assembly.

The assembly will have six months to write a new constitution for Venezuela, seen as the centrepiece of the president's strategy for transforming the country.

The electoral council says Mr Chavez' actions violate a law which forbids the president from directly participating in the election - a law the council says he himself proposed, and the people approved, in a referendum earlier this year.

Soon after the ruling, Mr Chavez went on air to declare that the ruling was an attempt to suspend the election, and said that the Electoral Council would have to throw him into prison in order to silence him.

[ image: The council said the president had been plugging his candidates on TV]
The council said the president had been plugging his candidates on TV
The television show, called Face to Face with the President, was scheduled for 2000 local time, and he appeared as promised, although a few minutes late.

Mr Chavez deviated from the programme's usual format of taking questions from the audience, choosing instead to deliver a 40-minute speech in which declared himself a president in chains.

He said the electoral council was part of a conspiracy to suspend the 25 July vote.

The Venezuelan president told viewers: "I feel like a prisoner here. But I am sure that on 25 July all of you will break the chains. We have all been chained for years, chained by corrupt powers."

Mr Chavez said he would pay the electoral council's fine because he did not want to give it an excuse to suspend the elections.

At the same time, he issued a warning to the opposition: "Do not underestimate your adversary."

Rewriting the rules

It is not clear how the council will react to the broadcast. The BBC correspondent in the region, Peter Greste, says that because the show did not take its usual format, the president could argue that his regular show never went to air.

But it is also probable that Mr Chavez will try to ride the conflict out.

If, as expected, his political allies dominate the constitutent assembly, the president's critics fear they will be able to rewrite the rules in whatever form suits the president.

Mr Chavez, a 44-year-old retired army officer, came to power in February with a pledge to purge corruption and rule in favour of the country's impoverished masses.

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