• Electoral council said to have validated petition signatures
  • Opposition will need to gather 4 million signatures this year

A referendum to oust Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro moved a step closer after electoral authorities validated enough votes in a petition to move to the next stage in the process, a leading opposition politician said.

The electoral council, or CNE, certified that more than 1 percent of the electorate signed the petition, Jesus “Chuo” Torrealba said in his weekly webcast. A CNE press official, who asked not to be named because they were not authorized to speak publicly, said the auditing of signatures had concluded and that authorities would make official statement later this month.

“The auditing of the signatures finished yesterday,” Torrealba said. “It finished what the whole world knew. The opposition reached and exceeded the 1 percent demanded.”

A favorable ruling would trigger a race against time as the opposition tries to collect about 4 million signatures needed to demand a recall referendum is held this year. Delaying the referendum until 2017 would lead to the vice president taking over from Maduro in the case of a defeat for the government, rather than forcing the administration to hold new elections.

Earlier, several leading opposition politicians had posted what they said were documents from the CNE indicating the opposition had collected almost 400,000 valid signatures, far exceeding the 1 percent requirement.

Maduro’s opponents have accused the government of intentionally holding up the process as polls show the president’s approval rating below 30 percent, with runaway inflation and chronic shortages of consumer staples cutting deep into Venezuelans’ wallets. On Wednesday, the International Monetary Fund said it expects the country’s economy to shrink 10 percent this year, while consumer prices rise more than 700 percent.

The beleaguered president has likened the recall drive to a “coup,” and blames the country’s ills on an “economic war” led by businessmen and his political foes. Maduro has repeatedly said a vote will not happen this year.

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