Venezuela awaits key ruling on Maduro recall vote

Caracas (AFP) - Venezuela's opposition learns Thursday whether authorities will let them proceed with efforts to call a referendum on removing President Nicolas Maduro, whom they blame for the country's fall from booming oil giant to basket case.

The National Electoral Board (CNE) is due to decide whether to accept or reject an initial petition with 1.8 million signatures endorsing a recall vote against Maduro, whom the opposition accuses of driving Venezuela into economic and political chaos.

Maduro's opponents warn that the country faces an explosion of unrest if authorities do not allow a recall referendum this year.

Enrique Marquez, the deputy speaker of the opposition-controlled legislature, said Wednesday the referendum was the only "escape valve" for a country racked by economic collapse, hyperinflation, shortages of food and medicine, daily power outages and violent crime.

He urged the CNE to "get in step with history, with the suffering of the Venezuelan people, and remove the barriers blocking the referendum from being held this year."

The opposition accuses the CNE of dragging its feet to protect Maduro, the political heir to the late leftist firebrand Hugo Chavez.

Maduro's camp, for its part, accuses the opposition of massive fraud in its petition drive.

Even if the CNE accepts the petition submitted on May 2, Maduro's opponents face a long and winding road to call a referendum.

And they may not get there by the crucial date of January 10 -- four years into the leftist leader's six-year term -- when a successful recall vote would trigger new elections rather than simply pass power to Maduro's vice president.

For the petition to be accepted, the CNE must recognize at least 200,000 signatures as valid.

If that happens, signatories must then present themselves in person to confirm their identity with a fingerprint scan.

The opposition must then submit a second petition, this time with four million signatures, or 20 percent of the electorate, for the CNE to organize a referendum.

The pro-recall camp would need more votes than Maduro won the 2013 election with -- some 7.5 million -- to remove him from office.

- Waiting game -

That adds up to a lot of ifs, and political analysts say the CNE could easily stall the process until next year, when Maduro's United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) could orchestrate the unpopular president's replacement by another party leader.

Polls show nearly seven in 10 Venezuelans want Maduro to go.

But the divided opposition has struggled to rally a substantial protest movement or effectively wield the congressional majority it won last December, which has been hamstrung by a Supreme Court seen as loyal to Maduro.

In Washington, the Organization of American States adopted a resolution urging Maduro and the opposition to engage in an "open dialogue" to "consolidate representative democracy."

French President Francois Hollande and Chilean counterpart Michelle Bachelet joined the call for "dialogue" after meeting in Paris.

Venezuela's economy is forecast to contract eight percent this year, with inflation of 700 percent.

Home to the world's largest oil reserves, Venezuela has undergone a spectacular implosion as crude prices have plunged over the past two years.

The grinding crisis has made daily life increasingly hard.

Venezuelans face long lines at supermarkets tightly guarded by nervous soldiers -- bare shelves and soaring prices inside -- a dysfunctional health care system short on basic medications and supplies, daily power cuts of four hours across most of the country, and a government that only operates two days a week to save electricity.

But they have not yet erupted into mass protests, whether because they are too busy waiting in lines or because they are haunted by the violence that killed 43 people during pro- and anti-government demonstrations in 2014.

In a rare glimmer of good news, the country's largest brewery said it would restart production, more than a month after shutting down because of a barley shortage.

The Polar brewing company said it had obtained a $35-million bank loan by putting up its shares in an investment fund as collateral, enabling it to import more barley.