Venezuelan security forces have held back hundreds of protesters in Caracas as they tried to reach the country's electoral body. Officials are a step closer to accepting a recall vote against President Nicolas Maduro.
Amid angry shouts of "Traitors!" and "You're hungry too!" on Tuesday, some 1,000 protestors were held back with tear gas, as police prevented them from reaching the National Electorate Board (CNE) in the Venezuelan capital.
Tuesday's protest marked at least the fourth such demonstration in as many weeks. Every time, however, security forces have blocked demonstrators from reaching downtown Caracas.
The opposition to President Nicolas Maduro claims that the CNE is stalling the recall process - to remove him from office - in a bid to protect Maduro, whom they accuse of driving Venezuela to the brink of collapse.
In a new development, the president's opponents said Tuesday that election officials had accepted a 1.3 million signature recall petition as valid. The round-robin is part of the process needed to force a referendum to remove the president from office.
The South American nation has suffered an economic implosion since Socialist Maduro took office in 2013, which has resulted in severe shortages of food, electricity, medicine and other basic products. Despite having the world's largest crude oil reserves, Venezuela has also been hit hard by falling global prices.
Maduro recently announced a few measures aimed at alleviating the hardship faced by many. Among the measures were a shorter working week for shops and government offices, as well as calls for people to stop using electric hair dryers and ironing their clothes.
'No referendum this year'
The opposition is now racing to call the referendum before January 10, which will mark four years into Maduro's six-year term. If successful, the recall vote would trigger new elections rather than transfer power to the vice president.
Vice President Aristobulo Isturiz said bluntly on Monday, however, that there "won't be a referendum this year."
Efforts to bring both sides to the table
International mediators, led by Spain's former prime minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, are trying to bring the government and opposition together for talks, but both sides have so far shown reluctance.
Protest leader Henrique Capriles, who narrowly lost the 2013 presidential race to Maduro, however, said that the opposition would not meet with mediators until electoral authorities set a date to validate the initial referendum petition.
"We're not going to sign up for hypocritical negotiations. If people don't believe in Maduro, they're not going to believe in talks," Capriles said.
ksb/mm/kms (AFP, AP, dpa)