Venezuela: thousands of opponents queue up to oust Hugo Chavez
Thousands of opponents of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez have signed a petition seeking a referendum on his rule.
Thousands of people queued in long lines outside signature centres at the start of the four-day opposition campaign to force a referendum early next year.
A broad but splintered opposition alliance is seeking to gather the minimum 2.4 million signatures needed to trigger a vote on the rule of former army officer Chavez, who critics say is steadily turning Venezuela into a communist tyranny.
The large turnout on the first day, even in traditionally pro-Chavez areas, reflected a strong opposition challenge against the left-leaning president, who was first elected to power in the world's five biggest oil exporter in 1998.
Enthusiastic voters, many carrying national flags and singing anti-Chavez slogans, lined up outside nearly 2,700 signing centres across the country.
Protected by troops, the turnout of petitioners was much larger and more enthusiastic than during last weekend's pro-government signature drive that sought a referendum against opposition parliamentarians.
When the campaign ends on Monday, electoral authorities will have a month to verify the signatures and if the required number is achieved, they will set a date for a vote, probably in April next year.
After two years of political conflict, the opposition believes it can oust Chavez, who survived a brief coup last year and outlasted a recent oil-industry strike that plunged the economy into recession.
Opposition leaders fear Chavez may resort to force to stay in power. But government officials accused the opposition leaders of trying to provoke violence by signing in pro-Chavez areas.
Chavez dismisses the opposition's chances of voting him out. Polls show two-thirds of Venezuelans would vote against him in a referendum, but he rejects the surveys as biased.
The Venezuelan leader, subdued but still defiant, defended his government and predicted he would finish his current mandate and be re-elected for another six-year term.
"I will rule Venezuela, God willing, until 2013," Chavez said. "This is a government that does its job for the people."
Six years after leading a botched coup, Chavez won office and proclaimed a self-styled "revolution" promising to improve the lives of Venezuela's impoverished majority.
But his foes say his revolutionary reforms, such as cheap credits and land redistribution, are ruining the economy.
As a sharp downturn has increased inflation and unemployment, Chavez has seen his support wither since he won his first landslide election and was re-elected in mid-2000.
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