Reuters International

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro speaks during a Council of Ministers at Miraflores Palace in Caracas, Venezuela July 11, 2016. Miraflores Palace/Handout via REUTERS

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CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan opposition leaders said on Tuesday they had cleared another hurdle in their push for a referendum to recall President Nicolas Maduro this year with the election board's validation of an initial signature drive.

Several prominent members of the Democratic Unity coalition posted on Twitter documents purportedly from the national election council confirming they had validated nearly 400,000 signatures requesting the referendum.

That would be twice the total needed - 1 percent of registered voters - to trigger the next stage in the painstaking process, which is to obtain nearly 4 million signatures asking for a vote to recall the unpopular socialist president.

There was, however, no confirmation from the election board.

Maduro, who won election in 2013 to replace Hugo Chavez but has seen his ratings plummet amid an economic crisis, has vowed there will be no referendum this year and officials have accused the opposition of fraud in obtaining signatures.

"What is going to be the cost if this country does not obtain a peaceful, electoral solution to the crisis?" said one opposition leader, Henrique Capriles, on his weekly radio programme, before later posting the documents. "A social explosion would be worse. No one wants that, but the people's patience has a limit."

The government says there is not enough time to organise a referendum this year because the opposition waited too long before activating the mechanism, but Capriles said it would be perfectly possible to hold it by Oct. 30 or Nov. 6.

The timing is important because if Maduro loses a referendum this year, the election council would call a new presidential vote - which polls indicate he would likely lose.

Losing a referendum after January means he would be replaced by his vice president, leaving the Socialist Party in power until the next presidential election scheduled for the end of 2018.

Critics blame failed socialist economic policies for the OPEC nation's product shortages, lines at shops, world's highest inflation, and two-and-a-half year recession.

But Maduro, 53, says the fall in oil prices is to blame, along with an "economic" war led by domestic opponents and businesses with the backing of Washington.

(Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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