The council's president, Francisco Carrasquero, told a press conference on Sunday that the country would know the result by 4 or 5 June - "unless there is an absolutely necessary delay".

Carrasquero's announcement came on the third and final day of the verification process of more than one million petition signatures seeking such a recall.

A coalition of business and labour leaders has bitterly opposed the leftist-populist leader's government.

Welcoming the challenge

Chavez, a former paratrooper who was temporarily ousted in April 2002 before returning to power, said on Sunday he had no fears of a potential referendum on his rule if enough signatures are validated.

"I have no fear of a referendum, I have my political force." 

"I have no fear of a referendum, I have my political force" 

Hugo Chavez,
Venezuelan president

The Organization of American States (OAS) and the US-based Carter Center has been monitoring the three-day verification process.

Opposition leaders claim to have collected 3.4 million signatures. However, electoral authorities have so far validated only 1.9m - 555,000 short of the minimum required by law.

Scenarios

Venezuela's constitution allows for a recall at any time past the halfway point of an official's term.

If the referendum is held before 16 August - when Chavez begins his fourth year in office - and he loses, new presidential elections must be held.

If the referendum is held after 16 August and Chavez loses, however, there is no election and the vice-president takes office.

In either case, Chavez would be out.

Carrasquero has ordered the "strict verification" of petition signatures after a person was detained in the capital in possession of 800 odd counterfeit identity papers.