On Thursday, October 20 Venezuela’s electoral ruling body, the Consejo Nacional Electoral (CNE) indefinitely postponed the signature gathering drive of 20% of registered voters in support of a recall referendum against president Maduro due to have taken place this coming week. After weeks of rumors about a possible Supreme Justice Tribunal (TSJ) ruling blocking the recall referendum, the process has been effectively stopped, not by the TSJ, but by the decisions of five regional penal courts.

In almost simultaneous events during the afternoon hours of October 20, the penal courts of the States of Aragua, Bolivar, Carabobo, Monagas, and Apure, said they were “nullifying” the first stage of the recall referendum petition process, the collecting of 1% of registered voter’s signatures supporting the petition, because of electoral fraud allegations. Later, on October 21 and 22, courts at the States of Zulia and Trujillo also issued similar rulings.

Following the decisions by the regional penal courts the CNE said in a press release issued in the afternoon of October 20 that “as a consequence of these (the court’s) decisions, and until there is a new judicial order, the process of collecting the signatures of 20% scheduled for October 26, 27, and 28, and for which the CNE had been working, will be halted.”

Rumors of the cancelation of the recall referendum process had been rife at least since Jesús Torrealba, Executive Secretary of the opposition coalition Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD) declared on October 8 that he had information that the TSJ would probably issue a decision “assassinating” the recall referendum. The MUD published a press release on October 10 announcing a demonstration “ten times the size of the Toma de Caracas” of September 1 in the case rumors about the impending decision by the TSJ were confirmed. This time, said Torrealba, the opposition march would head to the “centers of power.”

The source of Torrealba’s suppositions, and of the ensuing debate within the opposition about the TSJ suspending the recall referendum process, seemed to have been the petitions made to the tribunal by government officials on June 13 demanding a suspension of the process on the basis that the opposition had incurred in a widespread fraud during the collection of the signatures of 1% of voters to kick start the process.

However, parallel to that petition, Chavista State governors had been asking regional penal courts to nullify the 1% signatures events “and their consequences” in their States. It was these regional courts and not the TSJ as the opposition first feared, who eventually ruled against the referendum.

According to constitutional expert José Ignacio Hernández, the allegations by the government that the opposition had staged a “mega fraud” during the 1% signature gathering drive lacks legal basis. The government’s claim seems to rest on the fact that the CNE rejected 605,727 of the more than 1,859,000 signatures presented by the opposition. Most of those the rejections had to do with technical irregularities which do not imply fraudulent intentions by the opposition.

In any case, argues Hernández, the Venezuelan electoral norms only speak of fraud if the irregularities had affected the final result of the process, and this was not the case in the 1% drive. Eugenio G Martinez, a leading electoral journalist, also explained via twitter (@puzkas) that 97% of the cases of signatures of deceased persons, a main allegation of fraud by the government, were due to transcription errors by the CNE.

Government officials however insisted on claiming that the process was being suspended because of a fraud during the 1% signature collection drive, and in order to prevent a new fraud in the upcoming 20% drive. PSUV leader, and Maduro’s appointed overseer for the referendum process, Jorge Rodríguez, said that the whole process was being cancelled because it had been “tainted by fraud.” He insisted that the fraud had been revealed by the existence of “10,995 signatures of deceased, 3,000 signatures of underage citizens, and 1,333 citizens politically disqualified for crimes related to drug trafficking, murder, and fraud.” He also said that a future TSJ decision against the referendum was still possible.

Socialist Party (PSUV) Vice-president Diosdado Cabello said that the “electoral fraud” during the 1% collection drive could have grave consequences for opposition leaders. “We are sure that here in Venezuela there will be justice and those who have committed fraud will have to respond to justice,” he said. As if coordinated with Cabello’s declarations and the courts decisions, another penal court of Carabobo issued, also on October 20, a prohibition for Jesús Torrealba, Herique Carpriles Radonski, and six more opposition leaders to leave the country.

Upon leaving the country on a surprise international trip, president Maduro did not directly refer to the recall referendum, but warned that the opposition was “making calls for violence,” and also warned that those involved in “insurrection” would end up in prison.

On October 22 Cabello gave another press conference surrounded by other PSUV leaders announcing that the government had evidence of a coup d’état plot plan named, according to Cabello, “Rock and Roll,” part of a wider conspiracy plot named “Operation Condor.” The plan would include the taking over of military facilities by opposition supporters in order to “force the Bolivarian Armed Forces” to either accept the 20% signature collection drive or to force Maduro’s resignation. “We will not allow them to topple the government,” said Cabello.

The coalition of opposition parties Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD) said it would react shortly and jointly to the decision by the CNE to abide by the regional court’s rulings. Jesús Torrealba said in a press conference that the opposition would be calling to street demonstrations shortly, but he warned followers against giving in to violence: “It has become very clear for us that the government needs a scenario of violence and submission. This is a government that lives from chaos, it feeds from chaos, and it needs a violent response.”

On October 22 the most prominent opposition leaders, including Henrique Capriles Radonski and Henry Ramos Allup, announced the agenda for the opposition for this next week. Capriles claimed that a “coup d’état” by the government has taken place with the suspension of the recall referendum process, and announced that the opposition will stage nation-wide protests on Wednesday, October 26, the day the signature collection drive was supposed to have started. Wednesday’s protests will be called the “Takeover of Venezuela” (Toma de Venezuela.) There have so far been limited peaceful protests in some areas of Caracas.

Reactions were also swift from the critical chavismo. Nicmer Evans, leader of Marea Socialista, a party that proclaims itself chavista but critical of the Maduro government, declared that with the decision to block the referendum the government “has closed the last democratic window left, “ and said that the government had stepped from a competitive authoritarianism into an absolute authoritarianism.”

Religious authorities also reacted to the events. “Today a new political regime has dawned, one in which neither the popular will not he petitions of the people are respected, one in which popular expressions are blocked,” also argued the Jesuit rector of the Universidad Católica Andrés Bello, José Virtuoso. “I think we are all in shock in the country, and I agree with the opinion of Marea Socialista: we have passed from competitive form of authoritarianism to a complete authoritarianism,” he added. The president of the Venezuelan Episcopal Conference, Diego Padrón, said that “the suspension of the 20% (signature collection drive) is disrespectful of the will of the people.”

Constitutional expert José Ignacio Hernández believes that the October 20 events amount to a “constitutional fraud.” As part of this fraud Hernández points to the improbable coincidence of five different regional courts deciding on the same issue the very same day, almost to the hour.

PROVEA, the local leading human rights NGO, has stated that the suspension of the recall referendum “closes peaceful channels and encourages violence.” PROVEA also sees a coordinated response by different government bodies as part of a plan: “The rulings, announced almost simultaneously by different penal courts –which do not have the legal attribution to suspend electoral processes,- and their almost immediate compliance by the maximum electoral arbiter of the country, reveals the existence of a coordinated plan by the Executive Power to block citizens from evaluating the performance of the President through the recall referendum mechanism.”

The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) has issued a press release urging Venezuela’s electoral authorities to “reverse its suspension of the signature collection process.” WOLA says that the CNE decision is a dangerous set back which counters legal norms, further raises tensions in the country.

There has also been a strong international reaction. The Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS) Luis Almagro, wrote on twitter (@OEA_oficial): “Only dictatorships strip their citizens of their rights, do not acknowledge the legislative, and have political prisoners.” He also wrote “Today we are more convinced than ever that a rupture of democracy has occurred in Venezuela. Time has come for concrete actions.”

United States State Department spokesperson, John Kirby, said the US government is “deeply worried” about the CNE blocking the recall referendum process. The governments of Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, United States, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, Peru, and Uruguay signed a joint document made public by Argentina’s foreign ministry, in which they lament the “blocking of the (referendum) process,” but they also call on all parties within the country to strengthen national dialogue, “directly or through facilitators.”