Venezuela's opposition gathered enough signatures to proceed with efforts to call a referendum on removing President Nicolas Maduro, electoral authorities said Monday, without setting a date for the next step.
The head of the National Electoral Council (CNE), Tibisay Lucena, told a press conference Maduro's opponents had cleared the threshold of 200,000 valid signatures on a petition demanding the leftist leader face a recall referendum.
The opposition blames Maduro for an economic implosion that has seen food shortages, hyperinflation, violence and looting erupt in the once-booming oil giant.
The council did not set a date for the next stage of the lengthy recall process, in which the opposition must collect four million signatures in just three days.
In a boost to the Maduro camp's claims of rampant fraud, Lucena said the authorities had detected more than 1,000 apparently falsified signatures.
The opposition submitted 1.8 million signatures in May calling for Maduro to face a recall, 1.3 million of which were accepted by the council.
Signatories then had to show up at electoral offices to validate their identity with fingerprint scans.
The threshold was one per cent of the electorate, or roughly 200,000 signatures which the opposition cleared.
"The certification will be granted by the (CNE) secretariat," Lucena said.
That enables the main opposition coalition, the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), to formally request a recall vote.
However, Lucena said more than 1,000 fingerprint scans did not correspond with the signatory's identity, more than 400 were repeats and nearly 200 people tried to register more than once.
"The electoral authority will ask the state prosecutor's office to investigate the potential usurpation of identity committed by some citizens," she said.
A recent poll found 64 per cent of Venezuelans would vote to remove Maduro.
But to get there, the opposition first has to collect another four million signatures in three days, at a yet-to-be-decided time.
To win the ensuing recall referendum, Maduro's opponents would need more votes than he won the presidency with in 2013 around 7.5 million.
Time appears to be on the president's side.
His allies have an arsenal of possible delaying strategies. They have filed more than 8,000 legal challenges against the recall petition and called on the electoral authorities to ban MUD for alleged fraud.
The opposition is racing to force a referendum by January 10, the cutoff date to trigger new elections four years into the president's six-year term.
After that date, a successful recall vote would simply transfer power to Maduro's hand-picked vice-president.US Secretary of State John Kerry urged Venezuela not to stall.
"The Venezuelan constitution guarantees Venezuelans the right to have their voices heard through the referendum process. And we call on Venezuela`s authorities to allow this process to go forward in a timely and a fair manner, and not to play a game of delay," he said in Washington.
MUD, a motley coalition of opposition parties, accuses the electoral authority of being in bed with Maduro.
They are hoping pressure from Venezuelans desperate over the collapsing economy will force the government's hand.
But MUD has struggled to rally mass protests.
Many Venezuelans are too busy standing in line for scarce food and basic goods.
Maduro has declared a state of emergency and given his military sweeping powers over food production and distribution.
Venezuela has sunk into crisis as global prices for its main export, oil, have collapsed.
Its economy is facing its third year of deep recession this year. Its inflation rate is the highest in the world, forecast to top 700 per cent this year.
The economic tailspin is threatening 17 years of socialist rule under Maduro and his late predecessor, Hugo Chavez.
The opposition won legislative elections in December, only to find its power stymied by the Supreme Court, which it says is also in Maduro's pocket.