- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 3, 2004

CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said yesterday he’ll accept a probable recall referendum on his presidency, predicting he will defeat the opposition in “the decisive battle.”

“I accept it. I accept it,” Mr. Chavez said in a nationwide broadcast hours after Venezuela’s elections council projected that the president would face a recall vote, opening a turbulent new phase in this oil-producing nation’s volatile power struggle.

Mr. Chavez welcomed the news, saying it was a triumph for Venezuelan democracy. He said it disproved opposition charges that he was steering the country into dictatorship — and vowed to win the referendum.

He noted that the elections council had yet to officially call a referendum.

Thousands of the president’s supporters rallied outside the Miraflores presidential palace.

In sporadic violence erupting in parts of the capital, Chavez supporters setting fire to cargo trucks, severely beating an opposition lawmaker outside Congress, and opening fire on the offices of Caracas’ opposition mayor and a television station.

Based upon a count of roughly 40 percent of voter signatures, supporters of a recall vote will have gathered 2.56 million signatures when the counting is completed, said Jorge Rodriguez, a director of the National Elections Council.

That would surpass the 2.43 million signatures — or 20 percent of the electorate — required to demand the referendum. Mr. Chavez said earlier this week that he would abide by any elections council ruling.

Mr. Rodriguez did not say when final results will be released and did not announce a date for a referendum, which would likely further polarize the world’s No. 5 oil exporter.

Opponents of the leftist Mr. Chavez accuse the former paratroop commander of gradually imposing an authoritarian government. Supporters applaud his far-reaching social programs for Venezuela’s poor majority.

For a recall to succeed, more citizens would have to vote against Mr. Chavez than the 3.76 million people who re-elected him in 2000 to a six-year term.

Mr. Rodriguez’ announcement came after months of wrangling over the recall petition, first submitted in December. Both sides had accused each other of cheating during the petition process, and mutual accusations flew earlier yesterday.

Government supporters claimed the opposition used thousands of fake ID cards to bolster its number of signatures. Several government investigations into purported fraud were continuing.

The opposition accused the government of tampering with petitions after federal agents were discovered sifting through petitions inside a vault at the National Elections Council late Wednesday.

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