Venezuelan authorities on Friday banned top opposition leader Henrique Capriles from public office for 15 years, a move that could galvanize more protests in an increasingly tense power struggle in the crisis-hit country.
Capriles was one of the leaders of mass demonstrations this week against socialist President Nicolas Maduro that led to deadly clashes with security forces.
State comptroller Manuel Galindo imposed a “sanction of disqualification from exercising public office for a period of 15 years,” his institution said in a ruling made public by Capriles himself.
The ruling said the sanction was due to “administrative irregularities” by Capriles in his post as governor of the northern Miranda state.
The state authority’s move effectively bans Capriles, a lawyer of 44, from running against the president in a general election due next year.
Capriles, a two-time presidential candidate, was seen as the opposition’s best hope to defeat Maduro.
He rejected Galindo’s move and insisted he would retain his post as governor, branding Maduro a dictator.
“The only one who is disqualified in this country is Nicolas Maduro. They can stick their disqualification where the sun doesn’t shine,” he told a news conference.
“If the dictatorship is squealing, it is a sign that we are making progress.”
Capriles’ allies vowed to push ahead with further protests planned for Saturday.
“The dictatorship wants to choose its opposition. Shall we let it? No. Tomorrow we continue,” wrote leading lawmaker Freddy Guevara on Twitter.
Venezuela’s political crisis intensified last week when the Supreme Court issued rulings curbing the powers of the opposition-controlled legislature.
The court has consistently ruled in Maduro’s favor since the opposition majority took its seats in the National Assembly legislature in January 2016.
It drew international criticism for last week’s rulings, which seized the assembly’s powers and revoked lawmakers’ immunity from prosecution.
The court reversed the rulings days later, but the opposition intensified its protests, prompting police to fire tear gas.
Capriles can appeal against his sanction within two weeks to the comptroller and within six months to the Supreme Court.
The collapse in prices for Venezuela’s crucial oil exports has sapped the country’s revenues.
Ordinary Venezuelans are suffering from shortages of food, medicine and basic goods along with a surge in violent crime.
The opposition blames Maduro for the economic crisis.
A 19-year-old man was shot dead during protests on Thursday, the third consecutive day of violence. Public prosecutors said they would charge a policeman over the killing.
Opposition leaders say Jairo Ortiz was shot as authorities tried to break up the protest in the hilly, low-income Carrizal area on the outskirts of Caracas.