Venezuela's opposition took the first step in its bid to remove President Nicolas Maduro after successfully collecting enough voter signatures to initiate the decisive phase of a recall referendum.
The head of the National Electoral Council (CNE), Tibisay Lucena, told a press conference that Maduro's opponents had cleared the threshold of 200,000 valid signatures on a petition demanding the leader face a recall referendum.
The opposition blames Maduro for an economic implosion that has seen food shortages, hyperinflation, violence and looting erupt in the once-booming oil giant.
The council did not set a date for the next stage of the lengthy recall process, in which the opposition must collect four million signatures in just three days.
In a boost to the Maduro camp's claims of rampant fraud, Lucena said the authorities had detected more than 1,000 apparently falsified signatures.
The opposition submitted 1.8 million signatures in May calling for Maduro to face a recall, 1.3 million of which were accepted by the council.
Signatories then had to show up at electoral offices to validate their identity with fingerprint scans.
The threshold was one percent of the electorate, or roughly 200,000 signatures -- which the opposition cleared.
"The certification will be granted by the (CNE) secretariat," Lucena said.
That enables the main opposition coalition, the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), to formally request a recall vote.
However, Lucena said more than 1,000 fingerprint scans did not correspond with the signatory's identity, more than 400 were repeats and nearly 200 people tried to register more than once.
"The electoral authority will ask the state prosecutor's office to investigate the potential usurpation of identity committed by some citizens," she said.
A recent poll found 64 percent of Venezuelans would vote to remove Maduro.
But to get there, the opposition first has to collect another four million signatures in three days, at a yet-to-be-decided time.
To win the ensuing recall referendum, Maduro's opponents would need more votes than he won the presidency with in 2013 -- around 7.5 million. Time appears to be on the president's side.
His allies have filed more than 8,000 legal challenges against the recall petition and called on the electoral authorities to ban MUD for alleged fraud, moves which could delay the referendum.
The opposition is racing to force a referendum by January 10, the cutoff date to trigger new elections -- four years into the president's six-year term.
After that date, a successful recall vote would simply transfer power to Maduro's hand-picked vice-president.
Adding to the heated political climate, Venezuela's Supreme Court ruled on Monday night that the opposition-controlled National Assembly's activities would be "null" until it withdrew three opposition legislators whom the tribunal had suspended pending a probe into alleged vote-buying.