Reuters International

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro (C) greets supporters as he arrives to an event for handing over houses in Caracas, Venezuela June 9, 2016. Miraflores Palace/Handout via REUTERS

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CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela's elections council said on Friday it will begin a process of validating signatures of citizens seeking a recall referendum against President Nicolas Maduro, a small step in the opposition's effort to remove a deeply unpopular leader.

Adversaries of the ruling Socialist Party say the election authority is seeking to stall the referendum against Maduro, who is facing heavy criticism due to a steep recession, the world's highest inflation and Soviet-like product shortages.

The elections council next week will allow citizens who wish to withdraw their names from a list of 1.4 million valid signatures to do so, elections chief Tibisay Lucena said in a news conference.

The following week, voters who want to leave their names on the list will have to return to have their fingerprints double-checked by elections authorities.

This stage of the process involves collecting signatures from 1 percent the electoral registry.

But the elections council will still have 20 working days to determine if the opposition will move to the next stage of seeking the recall, which consists of collecting signatures from 20 percent of the voter registry.

Opposition leaders have accused the electoral authority of repeatedly changing criteria needed to trigger a recall and adding unnecessary obstacles to slow a referendum that Maduro would likely lose.

Maduro insists the opposition does not actually want a referendum, but rather are seeking a coup.

The elections council invalidated nearly 605,000 signatures, almost half of which were due to errors in filling out forms and 11,000 because the signatures corresponded to deceased citizens.

Two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, the most visible face of the recall campaign, said his signature was arbitrarily rejected along with that of other opposition leaders.

"On what grounds does Ms. Lucena reject my signature?" asked Capriles in response.

If Maduro lost a recall vote this year, fresh elections would be held. But if the vote happens after Jan. 10, Maduro would be replaced by his vice president.

A group of opposition lawmakers on Thursday were attacked as they tried to enter the electoral council headquarters to pressure the elections board to speed up the process. They accused government supporters of staging the attacks.

Majority leader Julio Borges was left bleeding from the nose.

(Reporting by Diego Ore and Eyanir Chinea; Writing by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Matthew Lewis)

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