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But the leftist leader flexed his muscle when riot police fired tear gas to block opposition protesters from marching on the electoral authority’s headquarters, underlining the tension tearing at the country as it staggers through a painful crisis.
After weeks of pressuring the National Electoral Board (CNE) to allow the referendum process to go ahead, the opposition announced the board had accepted as valid 1.3 million signatures on a petition calling for a recall vote.
The decision moves the lengthy recall process on to the next step, in which at least 200,000 signatories must confirm their identity with fingerprint scans.
Under the constitution, the opposition would then have to gather four million more signatures (20 percent of the electorate) to trigger a recall vote.
Maduro’s opponents are racing to call a referendum before January 10 – four years into his six-year term – when a successful recall vote would trigger new elections rather than transfer power to the vice president.
The opposition warns the once-booming oil giant risks exploding into unrest if authorities do not allow a referendum on Maduro’s rule, which has seen an economic implosion marked by severe shortages of food, electricity, medicine and other basic goods.
Seeking to pressure the electoral authorities, whom it accuses of dragging their feet, the opposition tried to march on the CNE’s headquarters, but heavily armored riot police broke up the protest.
It is the third time in recent days police have forcefully stopped attempts to march on the CNE.
Protesters had angry words for the police, shouting “Traitors!” and “You’re hungry too!”
About 1,000 demonstrators took part in the march, lining up behind a giant Venezuelan flag and chanting “This government will fall!” before police scattered them.
“We’re here in the street to get Maduro out. We want change in this country. We’re hungry,” said protester Richard Salas, an administrative worker who carried a sign with a long list of products that have disappeared from supermarket shelves.