Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez will face a mid-term recall referendum on August 15, the country's electoral council has officially announced. But there is controversy over the council's decision to use an untried electronic voting system.

After a struggle lasting almost two years, the political alliance known as the Democratic Coordinator that is seeking to oust President Chavez has succeeded in gathering enough signatures to trigger the recall referendum provided for in the president's own, 1999 constitution.

The opposition accuses Mr. Chavez of trying to establish a dictatorship in Venezuela. But although most polls show the president would probably lose the vote, the opposition still has a long, hard road ahead.

To begin with, it needs not just a majority of votes cast, but to exceed by at least one vote those received by the president himself in the 2000 election. Then there is the question of the electoral council, which the opposition sees as split 3-2 in favour of the government. And if that were not enough, there is the novel, touch-screen voting machinery, supplied by a consortium with no previous electoral experience and known ties to the Chávez regime.

On announcing the official result, council chairman Francisco Carrasquero added that the referendum process would be totally automated.

Even before his announcement, the minority, pro-opposition members of the council expressed grave doubts about this decision. They had been demanding a simultaneous, manual count of the voting slips produced by the machines. But this has so far been ruled out, leading to suspicion among opposition supporters that an electronic fraud may be planned.