2003-12-08 00:19:42 UTC
Sun 7 December, 2003 20:01
By Pascal Fletcher
CARACAS, Venezuela (Reuters) - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has
warned electoral authorities he will not accept a referendum on his
rule if they approve what he says are fraudulent opposition signatures
seeking such a vote.
Speaking during his weekly television and radio broadcast "Hello
President", Chavez demanded that he be allowed to personally count the
signatures "one by one".
It was the leftist president's bluntest warning that he would seek to
block efforts to secure a constitutional referendum on his rule.
The opposition says it has gathered enough signatures to trigger a
vote but Chavez insists the petition is riddled with false signatures.
Referring to Venezuela's National Electoral Council as "the referee,"
Chavez said: "If the referee comes along and, let's say, recognises
these signatures, then we can't play can we?".
"In that unlikely case, there couldn't be any electoral process in
Venezuela and of course this government wouldn't recognise it at all."
Opposition leaders have voiced fears that Chavez may try to avoid a
referendum, either through legal challenges or manoeuvres, or
ultimately, through force. But they hope international pressure will
stop this happening.
Chavez, who led several thousand supporters Saturday in a rally to
celebrate five years in power, repeated a charge that the 3.6 million
pro-referendum signatures, which his foes say they collected a week
ago, were a "mega-fraud."
His opponents, who say Chavez has opened political and social wounds
that are tearing the nation apart, will formally deliver the
pro-referendum signatures next week.
BARRAGE OF ACCUSATIONS
Brandishing what he said were lists of thousands of fraudulent
signatures, Chavez repeated accusations that the petition had been
packed with he names of foreigners, under-age minors and dead people.
He also said many people had illegally signed more than once.
Government leaders say the opposition only collected 1.9 million
signatures, well short of the 2.4 million required to trigger a vote.
The accusations place heavy pressure on the National Electoral
Council, which must decide in early January whether or not to hold a
referendum in April or May.
Chavez demanded that electoral authorities provide him with a
certified list of the identities on the pro-referendum petition.
"We're going to check them one by one," he said.
He denied he was trying to intimidate the electoral authorities,
saying: "You have my respect and support."
But his remarks were likely to trigger alarm in international bodies
like the Organisation of American States and the Atlanta-based Carter
Centre, which are monitoring Venezuela's referendum process.
OAS chief Cesar Gaviria has said his observers saw no sign of
widespread cheating in the November 28-December 1 pro-referendum
signature drive, a comment which earned him a rebuke from Chavez who
accused him of siding with his foes.
The OAS, the Carter Centre, and the United States, the biggest buyer
of Venezuela's oil, have all said they have faith in the electoral
council and have urged the government and the opposition to accept its