CARACAS Venezuela's opposition said it delivered 1.85 million signatures to the country's elections authority on Monday as part of the process of seeking a recall referendum against President Nicolas Maduro.
Food and medicine shortages, triple-digit inflation, rampant violent crime and increasingly frequent water and power cuts have stoked anger against Maduro.
The Democratic Unity coalition (MUD) gathered far more than the required 1 percent of voters' signatures, or nearly 200,000, needed to trigger the next phase of a recall referendum.
"With this successful strategy the MUD has progressed in achieving urgent political change via impeccably peaceful and constitutional measures," the coalition's head, Jesus Torrealba, tweeted on Monday.
The electoral body must now validate the signatures before the opposition can collect another 20 percent, or around 4 million signatures, before a vote can finally be held.
Maduro has sworn he will not be forced out before his term expires in 2019 and accuses the opposition of seeking a coup against him to destroy the socialist legacy of his predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez.
The government-leaning Supreme Court and electoral board have stymied the opposition-led National Assembly time and time again.
Opponents fear the election board is now trying to drag the referendum process into 2017, when the vice president would take over should Maduro be removed, rather than there being a new election.
"The recall referendum may temporarily pacify voter frustration," Nomura said in a note to clients. "However the purposeful delays from the (electoral board) should eventually backfire with higher social unrest in the streets if voters are unable to vent their frustration via the polls."
Tensions are already rising in the recession-hit oil producer.
Small anti-Maduro protests and looting incidents took place in various cities last month, some triggered by increasing power cuts resulting from energy shortages.
Torrealba was himself attacked by a handful of men throwing stones and punches during a march to protest power cuts last week.
The opposition was scheduled to submit the signatures on Tuesday but said it chose to secretly do so on Monday to avoid clashes.
"The violent ones were left hanging," he said.
(Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer and Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)