CARACAS, Venezuela – The Venezuelan opposition has said that their campaign to gather enough petition signatures to recall President Nicolás Maduro has passed the first stage after enough of the signatures were ratified through the scrutinization process.

The Venezuelan National Electoral Council (CNE) held the scrutinization of the petition signatures last week over the course of five full days.

In early May, the opposition coalition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) officially initiated the recall effort when the CNE approved their request to place ballot boxes across the country.

Citizens filed through and the opposition said they gathered 1.8 million votes in just three days, well over the 198,000 signatures (or 1 percent of the registered electorate) needed in order for an official plebiscite to be called. The signatures are then to be reviewed and confirmed.

The next step of the process is a repeat of the first step with a count of 20 percent (4 million) of the electorate instead of 1 percent of the electorate, but the signatures must be collected within 3 days. If enough signatures are collected during the second step, the CNE will then count and review the signatures. Once the CNE approves, the official referendum vote must be called within 90 days.

For Maduro’s mandate to be revoked, the votes in favor of a recall must surpass the number of votes he gathered in the 2013 election, which means that over 7.5 Venezuelans must vote against Maduro in order for the recall effort to succeed.

The opposition has already accused the CNE of purposely dragging its feet and delaying the recall effort, which the opposition estimates will last approximately seven months from start to finish. The recall petitions (and subsequent votes) must go through audit procedures that require time and manpower from government workers charged with carrying out the process.

In the first step of this process to be handled by the CNE, the electoral body announced earlier this month that over 500,000 signatures were fraudulent; names listed were those of deceased individuals, unregistered or nonexistent individuals and other invalid types of signatures, according to the CNE. Regardless, the remaining 1.3 valid signatures are more than enough given that less than 198,000 were needed for the first round of the recall process to advance.

The primary issue of the recall effort, however, is timing: the MUD says that there is more than enough popular support for unseating Maduro (and their assertions are backed by several polls) but when this happens will have future consequences.

If the recall process gathers enough votes as expected to unseat Maduro before January 10, 2017, presidential elections would be called within a month. If Maduro is removed after that date, however, then current Vice-President Aristóbulo Istúriz of Maduro’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) will take his place and finish the mandate as scheduled in January of 2019, ensuring no change in policy.

For this reason, followers of the MUD have marched several times on the CNE’s headquarters in Caracas to place pressure on the body to rapidly carry out the recall process. Clashes ensued between demonstrators and security forces as a minority of the latter hurled bottles and rocks at police as the march was winding down. The security forces, acting as a buffer between the crowd and the CNE offices, then retaliated with tear gas to disperse the crowd. The scene repeated itself at all the marches.

The CNE, who said that it needed this time to evaluate the signatures, has now said that, in accordance with the rules, the remaining valid signatures will need to be verified, and this was the process that was carried out last week.

For this process, the electoral body invited all those that signed the recall petition and were not one of the fraudulent signatures (1,352,052 exactly) to confirm their identities by reporting to regional CNE offices and having their fingerprints taken and compared with their fingerprints already on file, according to CNE head Tibisay Lucena.

Although the CNE has explained that some 396,000 signatures were confirmed, Henrique Capriles Radonski of the MUD has announced that 409,313 signatures have already been validated, more than twice the 198,000 required, but did not reveal his source of the number he presented.

“The big loser of today is Nicolás Maduro Moros as the people have shown their will,” Capriles Radonski said. He criticized the speed and availability of the signature verification process but still said their “goal was reached” and that the “recall will happen in 2016.”

“Now, we must prepare for the next stage of the recall process in which we must manifest the will of 4 million Venezuelans, or 20 percent of the electorate, in order to finally activate our recall referendum. This is an option for the people but an obligation for the government as they are not above the Constitution nor is anybody else,” Capriles Radonski said.

Jorge Rodríguez of the PSUV said that although the one percent (or 198,000) minimum was reached, the process has still failed to make any sort of impact. “They had five days and seven hours a day, hundreds and hundreds of verification sites and this is what they achieved: 396,000 signatures approved out of the nearly 2 million they claimed earlier, a return of less than 20 percent.”

MUD head Jesús Torrealba, however, insists that the relatively low number of confirmed signatures was due to a lack of verification stations. Thus, he is requesting that the CNE operate 40,000 petition signature tables in some 14,000 voting centers nationwide during the second stage of the process when around 4 million signatures (or 20 percent of the electorate) will need to be collected in 3 days.

Torrealba, along with the rest of his coalition, is now also calling on the CNE to quickly initiate this second stage of the process. He, along with MUD representative Vicente Bello, said that the electoral body is capable of holding the second stage as early as late July.

In the December 2015 election, the PSUV lost their majority in the National Assembly for the first time since 1999 (back when their coalition was known as the Fifth Republic Movement). On the other hand, the MUD won big and became the majority in the unicameral parliamentary chamber.

Maduro, through the TSJ, has passed certain laws and overruled bills created by the MUD in the National Assembly since the parliamentary election. Seeing no way around this clash of government branches, the MUD has now as a unit rallied around the goal of removing Maduro three years before his mandate expires.

Maduro’s predecessor, the popular Hugo Chávez, was elected for yet another term in the presidential election of late 2012. Following Chávez’s death in March of 2013, Maduro served as the interim leader until a new election was held a year later where he narrowly defeated Henrique Capriles Radonski of the MUD. This ensured that Maduro would finish the term for which Chávez was elected, which is scheduled to end in early February of 2019.

Led by Chávez, the “Bolivarian Revolution” was immensely popular in Venezuela for well over a decade but a series of developments over the last several years severely damaged its popularity and reputation.

Fed up with issues like high inflation, shortages of essentials like food products and medicine, high crime rates, insecurity and what they deem to be political repression, the populace of Venezuela has been increasingly turning away from the PSUV, especially since the death of Chávez in March of 2013 and the subsequent worsening economic situation in the country, brought about mostly by the sharp fall of oil prices and other commodities.

For those same reasons, various anti-government groups and opposition leaders took to the streets on February 12, 2014, and the violent march that ensued ended in three dead and hundreds injured. The demonstrations, organized and led by opposition figure Leopoldo López, who remains jailed, intensified for several weeks thereafter and left 43 Venezuelans dead (mostly security figures) before calm returned to the nation.