CARACAS, VENEZUELA —
Venezuela's opposition said Wednesday that officials have validated enough signatures to proceed to the next phase of a referendum to recall unpopular President Nicolas Maduro.
Opposition leader Jesus Torrealba said election officials confirmed the validity of some 407,000 signatures that were under review, more than double the 200,000 signatures required.
"There is no formal, legal or technical excuse for them not to immediately convoke the next phase'' of the referendum process, Torrealba told The Associated Press.
The National Election Council has not confirmed the validation of the signatures, but Torrealba said he expects an announcement soon.
If confirmed, the opposition can begin collecting the roughly 4 million signatures needed to hold the referendum. If a vote is held, the president would be removed only if the number of anti-Maduro votes exceeded the 7.6 million votes he received in the 2013 election. In December's parliamentary elections, opposition candidates mustered 7.7 million votes even and currently control the legislature.
Opposition leaders blame Maduro's socialist policies for rampant inflation and shortages of food, medicine and other basic goods. They are also demanding the release of jailed activists they call political prisoners. Maduro denies there are political prisoners and blames the shortages on an "economic war'' by his enemies.
In May, the opposition turned in petitions that it said carried the signatures of 1.8 million voters seeking the removal. But Maduro alleged there was fraud in the process, and many of the signatures were under review by election authorities. Government officials have also presented legal claims against the recall drive to the Attorney General's Office and the National Election Council.
Opposition leaders accuse government officials of dragging their feet on the referendum. Maduro's term expires in 2019.
"The road to the referendum will no longer be a circuitous route but a highway to change,'' said Torrealba, hoping the plebiscite can be held this year.
Polls indicate that Maduro's popularity is around 23 percent. A study by the Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict said there were an average of 24 protests a day in June, about a third of them triggered by food shortages.