CARACAS Venezuelan opposition sympathizers lined up on Monday around the country to validate signatures as part of a painstaking process to request a recall referendum against President Nicolas Maduro, who is deeply unpopular due to the country's economic crisis.
The elections council has required that those who signed for a recall vote against the 53-year-old former bus driver return to polling stations to verify their signatures through fingerprint detection.
Adversaries of the ruling Socialist Party say the requirement is part of a broader effort by the election council to stall the referendum at the behest of Maduro.
"This is necessary because the political situation of the country is unsustainable, what we're living is horrible," said Jose Gomez, 45, a merchant, in a line of hundreds at one signature point in Caracas.
"I feel terrible seeing neighbors selling television sets or belongings to be able to give food to their children."
The recent slump in oil prices devastated the OPEC nation's socialist economic model, leading to snaking grocery lines, empty supermarket shelves and growing anger among the roughly 30 million residents.
Maduro, elected in 2013 after the death of socialist leader Hugo Chavez, insists he is the victim of an "economic war" led by businesses with the backing of Washington.
The elections council this month rejected more than 600,000 signatures of nearly 2 million collected by the opposition, including those of high-profile politicians such as two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles.
The council also said the opposition handed over some 11,000 signatures corresponding to dead Venezuelans, which Socialist Party leaders cited as evidence the campaign is fraudulent.
During the current phase of the process, the opposition must validate close to 200,000 signatures, equivalent to 1 percent of the number of registered voters. Doing so would give them a chance to conduct a second officially sanctioned signature drive, in which they would have to garner close to 4 million signatures in order to trigger the recall.
Maduro and allies insist the referendum cannot take place this year because the opposition waited too long before beginning the referendum campaign.
The timing is important because if Maduro loses a referendum this year, the elections council would call a new election - which polls indicate he would likely lose. Losing a referendum after January would mean he would be replaced by his vice president, effectively leaving the Socialist Party in power.
(Writing by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Matthew Lewis)