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CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela's government is pushing forward with measures that could exclude some opposition political parties from future elections, potentially paving the way for the ruling Socialists to remain in power despite widespread anger over the country's collapsing economy.
The Supreme Court, loyal to socialist president Nicolas Maduro, has ordered the main opposition parties to "renew" themselves through petition drives whose conditions are so strict that party leaders and even an election official described them as impossible to meet.
Socialist Party officials scoff at the complaints. They say anti-Maduro candidates would be able to run under the opposition's Democratic Unity coalition, which has been exempted from the signature drives, even if the main opposition parties are ultimately barred.
But key socialist officials are also trying to have the coalition banned, accusing it of electoral fraud. Government critics point to this and the "renewal" order as signs the socialists are seeking to effectively run uncontested in gubernatorial elections and the 2018 presidential vote.
Investors holding Venezuela's high-yielding bonds had broadly expected Maduro to be replaced with a more market-friendly government by 2019.
The prospect of opposition parties being blocked from elections could raise concern in Washington where the Trump administration this week blacklisted Venezuela's Vice President Tareck El Aissami and called for the release of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez.
Maduro's opponents say his strategy is similar to that of Nicaraguan leftist president Daniel Ortega, who cruised to a third consecutive election victory in November after a top court ruling ousted the leader of the main opposition party. That left Ortega running against a candidate widely seen as a shadow ally.
"The regime is preparing Nicaraguan-style elections without political parties and false opposition candidates chosen by the government," legislator and former Congress president Henry Ramos wrote via Twitter, suggesting the government would seek to have shadow allies run as if they were part of the opposition.
The moves come as Maduro's approval ratings hover near 20 percent due to anger over chronic food shortages that lead to routine supermarket lootings and force many Venezuelans to skip meals. His government has avoided reform measures economists say are necessary to end the dysfunction, such as lifting corruption-riddled currency controls.
The elections council has ordered parties to collect signatures from 0.5 percent of registered voters on specific weekends.
The opposition estimates parties could in some cases have to mobilize a combined total of as many as 600,000 people in a single weekend and take them to 360 authorized locations, an arrangement they call logistically implausible.
Luis Rondon, one of five directors of the National Elections Council who tends to be a lone voice of dissent against its decisions, described the process as blocking the chances for opposition parties to stay on the rolls.
The council did not respond to a request for comment.
There is little question that sidelining the opposition would be the Socialist Party's easiest way to remain in power.
Socialist Party leaders have sought to delegitimize opposition parties by accusing them of involvement in terrorism. They point to the opposition's past, which includes a bungled coup attempt in 2002 against late socialist leader Hugo Chavez.
Maduro's ballot-box weakness was put on display when the Democratic Unity coalition took two thirds of the seats in Congress in 2015, the opposition's biggest win since Chavez took office in 1999.
Socialist Party legislator Hector Rodriguez described the "renewal" process as a "simple requirement," insisting that "a political party that does not have the capacity to collect that amount (of signatures) cannot be considered a national party."
Still, Socialist Party officials have done little to dispel fears they are trying to bar opponents from elections.
Following complaints that gubernatorial elections were being stalled, Socialist Party No. 2 Diosdado Cabello reminded the opposition that they could not take part in any race until they complied with the "renewal" order.
"Who would benefit if we held elections tomorrow?" asked Cabello during a January episode of his television talk show 'Hitting with the Mallet', in which he often wields a spiked club. "If you want we could hold elections tomorrow and you wouldn't participate because you have no party."
Even without pushing parties aside, the Maduro government has already blocked key opposition figures or laid the groundwork to do so.
Lopez, a former mayor, remains behind bars for leading anti-government protests in 2014 following a trial that one of the state prosecutors involved called a mockery of justice.
And the national comptroller has said he is considering barring state governor and ex-presidential candidate Henrique Capriles from holding office on alleged irregularities in managing public funds.
Pollster Luis Vicente Leon, who is openly critical of the government, said continuing delays to the election for governors is a sign the Socialist Party may do the same for other elections in which it faces long odds.
"Once you seek mechanisms by which you avoid, delay, impede or block an election, why wouldn't you block the rest?" he said in a recent radio interview.
"It's not that these elections (for governors) are in jeopardy, it's that all elections are in jeopardy."
Editing by Christian Plumb and Andrew Hay