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Venezuela's CNE May Disallow Almost Half of Chavez Recall Signatures

By Alex Kennedy in Caracas for Bloomberg

Feb. 25 (Bloomberg) -- Venezuela's electoral board may halt a bid by opposition groups to oust President Hugo Chavez by invalidating almost half the signatures collected in an effort to trigger a recall vote against the former lieutenant colonel.

The board set aside about 1.5 million of the 3.4 million signatures the opposition says it collected in December for closer scrutiny because some personal information is written in different handwriting than the signatures. About 2.45 million valid signatures are required to force a referendum.

``We're in an institutional crisis,'' Ezequiel Zamora, one two members on the five-person board to abstain from voting on the exclusion yesterday, said on Globovision television. ``The referendum has been given a serious blow.''

The decision may increase tension between Chavez supporters and opposition groups planning street protests during the G-15 summit in Caracas this week. Chavez, who took office in 1999, survived a coup attempt in 2002 and an opposition-led two-month strike last year that caused Venezuela's worst recession.

The decision was a ``flagrant violation'' of the South American country's constitution because the board's rules don't require the handwriting of the signature and the personal data to match, said Sobella Mejias, the other board member to abstain.

Three of the five board members voted for the invalidation at yesterday's six-hour meeting, including board President Francisco Carrasquero, who defended the decision to bar the signatures based on mismatched handwriting.

``If signatures are found with this problem, perfectly valid signatures will be excluded,'' Carrasquero said in an interview on state television late yesterday.

The board said earlier this month it planned to announce Sunday whether the opposition gathered enough signatures to force a recall vote. Opponents and supporters of Chavez have also collected signatures for recall elections against 67 legislators.

The U.S. State Department this month warned U.S. citizens to stay away from demonstrations in Venezuela for at least the next three months to avoid violence.

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