The president of Venezuela’s National Electoral Council (CNE), Tibisay Lucena, finally announced yesterday the result of the audit of the signatures submitted by the opposition as the first step to petition for a recall referendum (RR) against president Maduro. Lucena said that the opposition coalition Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD) had in fact gathered the signatures of 1% of registered voters in each state required to back the organization as the petitioner of a referendum.

The results of the CNE’s audit, carried out in the presence of opposition and PSUV witnesses, was already available on July 19, showing that almost 400,000 signatures had been successfully collected, audited, validated, and then audited again. It was thought that the CNE would make its announcement on July 26. Instead they waited to consider the report on August 1.

Hours before the CNE’s announcement and after meeting with the CNE rectors, Socialist Party (PSUV) mayor of Caracas Jorge Rodriguez said that the RR was legally dead because it is based on “the largest electoral fraud in the history of Venezuela.” He suggested that the Constitutional Chamber of the TSJ is processing a protective measure against the signature process. PSUV leader and National Assembly deputy, Diosdado Cabello, said that “we will do everything possible within the law and the Constitution to block this referendum from happening, how? By denouncing the fraud [it is based on].” Since June, state media has been insisting that “the right committed fraud with the signatures.”

Lucena did mention that the CNE would ask prosecutors to conduct an investigation into what she called “irregularities in relation to identity theft” in the 1% signatures submitted by the opposition. According to Lucena, under investigation are “1,326 signatures and fingerprints that do not match, plus 243 duplicated signatures.” She also said that 5,969 persons had made used of the five days period granted by the CNE to withdraw signatures, but that petitions were still being submitted and that the CNE would consider if they should be granted extempore.

International pressure was mounting before the CNE announcement. OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro suggested that Venezuela would reach the “terminal phase of de-legitimation.” He argued that the only source of legitimacy the government still had was the fact that Nicolas Maduro had been democratically elected. But if they it they continue to try to block the referendum “they are not only denying the powers of the state, but are also denying the rights of the people.” Also yesterday, US Secretary of State John Kerry called on the Venezuelan authorities not to drag out the recall process and favor democracy and the constitution over partisanship.

Because of complex rules set by the CNE, calculations regarding how long it could take for the actual referendum to take place vary. Elections journalist Eugenio Martínez says that if the CNE takes the maximum amount of the time that each step allows it, the collection of signatures could take place from September 10-12 and the referendum on January 6. That would be only three days before the limit of January 10. After that date a successful recall would not lead to new presidential elections but to the vice president completing the presidential term.

A different count by Alessandro di Stasio for the news portal Efecto Cocuyo, establishes the last week of November or the first week of December as possible dates. In contrast a count published yesterday in government backed news channel Telesur instead warned that the process “could be delayed if the Head of States, or any voter, were to introduce a legal appeal for any irregularity.” In any case, said Telesur, even “if the set periods are completed, the referendum would be held in 2017.”

The next phase of the process calls for the MUD to collect at least 20% of signatures of registered voters petitioning for the recall referendum. The date for this second signature collection was not set by Lucena in her announcement. One issue that will surely generate contention is the number and location of the signature collection centers the CNE authorizes.

In contrast to the validation of the 1% signatures in June in which the CNE’s fingerprint machines were used but not connected for instant authentication, meaning they required posterior verification against the CNE’s fingerprint data base, for the 20% drive they will be. This should simplify the process. However the 20% signatures will also be subject to a process of verification.