Leading Venezuela opposition figure barred from office 15 years

Venezuelan opposition leader Henrique Capriles on Friday was banned from holding political office for 15 years, a move that could galvanize protests against the leftist government and upend a presidential election in 2018.

Capriles, a two-time presidential candidate and current governor of Miranda state, was seen as the opposition's best hope to defeat President Nicolas Maduro. Opposition leaders say it is an arbitrary mechanism allowing the government to sideline popular politicians without due process.

The national comptroller banned him from office due to "administrative irregularities" including breaking contracting laws and improper management of donations from the British and Polish embassies, according to a copy of the ban.

Capriles responded to the measure in a defiant speech to emotive supporters at a small Caracas sports arena, describing the measure as a desperate gambit of a decaying dictatorship.

"You can shove your disqualification where the sun doesn't shine," said Capriles, flanked by opposition leaders. "This is not one person's struggle, this is not Capriles' struggle. This is the Venezuelan people's struggle for change."

The comptroller's office notification to Capriles said he had 15 working days to appeal the decision at that office or 180 days to ask for its annulment at the top court. Both are pro-government and unlikely to overturn the decision.