After a long delay, in June 10 the president of the national electoral ruling body (CNE), Tibisay Lucena, finally gave the official go ahead to the process by which signers of the recall referendum against president Maduro will have to go to the regional offices of the CNE to authenticate or “validate” their signatures. Petitioners will have June 20 to 24 to do this, but the whole process of authentication will take up to thirty-two working days, said Lucena, Which means that the final result of the process probably will not be finished until July 26.

Lucena also said that a total of 605,727 signatures presented by the opposition had been excluded for irregularities (the several categories of irregularities are detailed here by electoral journalist Eugenio Martínez.) However these exclusions should not affect the outcome of the process since, according to Lucena, the opposition will still authenticate 1,352,052 signatures, far more than the 1% needed in each state. Lucena added during her press conference that “any alteration of public order would entail the immediate suspension of the process until order and respect have been stablished.”

After Lucena’s press conference PSUV leader Jorge Rodríguez, ex-rector of the CNE and commission by Maduro to overlook the process, said that on Monday, June 13, the PSUV would introduce in the Supreme Tribunal (TSJ) a appeal for interpretation (recurso de interpretación) about what he said had been a “gigantic fraud” by the opposition in the signature gathering process.

The opposition’s victory was even more short-lived, as a series of new obstacles started to become apparent. As soon as Lucena’s announcement had ended, followers started searching for their names in the web page provided by the CNE to check whether and where they would have to authenticate their signatures. Many expressed frustration via Twitter at finding that they had been excluded from the process.

Surprisingly, several prominent opposition leaders, including Henrique Capriles Radonski, also found their signatures had either been excluded or showed up as not even having been presented at all to the CNE by the opposition coalition Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD) for consideration. Others reported finding their signatures deleted on a first search, only to find them included 24 hours later.

MUD representatives immediately protested questioning the CNE’s criteria for excluding many signatures. For example, the CNE excluded around 100,000 signatures because the voters did not sign the recall referendum petition in the same locality in which they are registered to vote, a requisite the MUD argues had not been previously established. Others were deleted for spelling errors, or for using “too much or too little ink” for the fingerprints.

The opposition also questioned the fact that the CNE had provided in its web portal a special form for people who wanted to have their signature excluded to do so from June 13 to 17. But the CNE provides no mechanism by which those who have signed and been excluded could re-include their signatures in the recall petition. The exclusion form is seen by the opposition as a way for the government to pressure public workers who might have signed.

Further issues could complicate matters for the opposition at this stage of the process. The CNE asks for the signatures of 1% of the voters in each state. In the scarcely populated states of Delta Amacuro and Amazonas, for example, that 1% is 1,171 and 1,016 voters respectively. The CNE has called for the authentication of 3,919 signatures in Delta Amacuro, and 3,877 in Amazonas. That is over three times that those needed to reach the threshold of 1%, which provides some margin of error.  But it still will represent a significant mobilization challenge for the MUD in those two, far-flung, rural states.

The limitation by the CNE to one validation center per state will also put serious pressure on the MUD’s mobilization capacity, since thousands of voters will have to attend these places in only four days. In many instances supporters will have to travel to the capital cities of the states, where the CNE offices are located.

Government officials have been insisting that, even if the opposition were able to fulfil all the requisites, the referendum will not be held before 2017 because, they argue, the opposition should have started the process in January this year. If the referendum is held next year and Maduro loses, no new elections would be called, but the vice-president would complete the presidential period until 2019.

Addressing government supporters at a gathering of the Congreso de la Patria on June 11, President Maduro said “if they fulfil all the requisites, the recall referendum will be next year, period. We must respect the CNE.” He went on to encourage those who think their signature may have been wrongfully used to go to the CNE and withdraw their names. Finally, he said that the more than 600,000 bad signatures (firmas chimbas) entailed legal responsibilities for the opposition leaders.

After Maduro, Jorge Rodríguez spoke and said that perhaps the referendum could be held from March 2017 on, but not before that date. In any case he repeated that on Monday 13 he would ask the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Justice Tribunal to annul the whole process of signatures gathering by the opposition based on what he said was evidence of a fraud.

According to legal expert José Ignacio Hernández the CNE has incurred in several irregularities. Not only the time lapses have been grossly inflated, but the decision to include an additional step by which persons can delete their signatures, the limitation of the places for authentication to one per region, and the publication of the signing petitioners, are all unconstitutional.

A group of NGO’s and research institutions, including the Center for Political Studies of the Universidad Católica Andrés Bello and Transparencia Venezuela, have published a press release also criticizing the CNE and the government for putting unconstitutional obstacles in the way of a democratic process that, they argue, should be much easier and expeditous. They say that the CNE has issued post-factum norms for excluding signatures and should open many more offices for authenticating the signatures.

This is only the first stage of the process for activating a recall referendum. If the requisite 1% signatures are finally authenticated, the MUD will then have to ask for the signatures of 20% of registered voters. Opposition analysts argue that there is still time for a recall referendum this year, but this is looking increasingly unlikely.

The MUD has announced protests on June 16 in support of the “excluded 600,000.”