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Sep 27, 4:59 PM EDT

Venezuelans gather signatures against Maduro


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CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- Hard-line opponents of President Nicolas Maduro began collecting signatures Saturday seeking to force a constitutional assembly and remove the socialist leader before presidential elections in 2019.

Analysts consider the petition campaign launched in Caracas by the Popular Will party led by jailed activist Leopoldo Lopez to be a long shot.

Gathering and verifying signatures from 15 percent of registered voters, or nearly 3 million people, would be a logistical nightmare in any country. But in deeply polarized Venezuela, where loyalists dominate government institutions and the courts, opponents of Maduro fear the National Electoral Council would find a way to invalidate signatures and expose them to retaliation.

Many Venezuelans still recall the fallout from a 2004 recall referendum that tried to force the resignation of then-President Hugo Chavez. A pro-government lawmaker published on the Internet the list of more than 2 million voters who signed the petition, and hundreds of opponents said they lost access to government jobs and services as a result.

Support for Maduro has plunged amid a deep economic crisis that has led to widespread shortages and galloping, 60 percent inflation. A wave of anti-government protests earlier this year left 43 people dead.

But the opposition has struggled to capitalize on Maduro's decline amid bitter infighting over the best way to confront his rule.

The current initiative lacks the full support of the Democratic Unity alliance of more than 20 opposition parties.

Hardliners led by Lopez, who was jailed in February, are calling for a combative stance. More moderate opponents hope they can sweep legislative elections next year by making inroads in traditionally pro-government poor enclaves and negotiating with the government to win more say on the Electoral Council.

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