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Venezuelan officials push for 2017 Maduro recall vote

The referendum on recalling Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro could be held early next year, the country's election board has announced. The move allows the ruling party to stay in power regardless of the outcome.

The election officials met with representatives of both the government and the opposition in an attempt to map out the road to the expected vote.

Assuming that the opposition fulfills the remaining requirements for the referendum, "the event could be held in the middle of the first quarter of 2017," the commission said in a statement on Wednesday.

Government opponents had hoped to hold the vote before January 10th - this would have triggered a new election in the event of Maduro's defeat. A later vote, on the other hand, would simply see Maduro succeeded by his vice-president, keeping the Socialist party in power at least until 2019.

Since the beginning of the recall campaign, the opposition has repeatedly accused the electoral officials of dragging their feet to protect Maduro.

"We reject the anti-constitutional elements of this announcement by the election board," said Jesus Torrealba, the head of the opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) coalition, on Wednesday.

Ruling party calls opposition 'cheats'

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The board also announced the terms for the next stage of the complicated recall procedure, which requires the opposition to gather some 4 million signatures, or 20 percent of voters, to schedule the vote.

In a blow to the opposition, the officials also required that the campaign gather over 20 percent of voters in each of Venezuela's 23 states. Furthermore, the election board said it would not provide the 19,500 vote machines demanded by the opposition. The officials only approved around 5,400 machines for the three-day signature drive in late October.

Ggovernment officials have meanwhile accused the campaigners of cheating to gain signatures for an earlier petition that triggered the referendum procedure in the first place.

"There will be no referendum in 2016, it's not under discussion. They are cheats," a senior Socialist Party leader Diosdado Cabello said on state TV.

dj/msh (AFP, AP, Reuters)

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