Venezuela's election commission has accepted 1.3 million signatures calling for the removal of President Nicolas Maduro, a move that can possibly pave the way to topple the leader who the opposition blames for a deep recession, triple-digit inflation and soaring crime.
The National Electoral Board (CNE) accepted the signatures on Wednesday, after rejecting an initial petition with 1.8 million signatures.
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.
Opposition representative Vicente Bello said that stage could happen between June 16 to 20.
Under the constitution, the opposition would then have to gather four million more signatures to trigger a recall vote.
"According to our calculations, the recall referendum could then be held in late September or early October of this year," Bello said.
One recent opinion poll showed that almost 70 percent of Venezuelans want Maduro stripped of presidency this year.
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 that 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.
Former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, who is leading the recall push, said in an interview last month that dialogue would simply allow the government to buy time and that the only way to resolve the crisis was through a vote.
'No referendum this year'
Maduro's camp has repeatedly accused the opposition of rampant fraud in its signature drive.
"There won't be a referendum this year," Vice President Aristobulo Isturiz said bluntly on Monday.
Seeking to pressure the electoral authorities, about 1,000 demonstrators tried to march on the CNE's headquarters on Tuesday, but police broke up the protest.
"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.
Home to the world's largest oil reserves, Venezuela has gone into an economic tailspin as global crude prices have plunged over the past two years.
Maduro accuses the business elite of artificially creating shortages to destabilise his government.