CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — The opposition turned in petitions to Venezuelan electoral authorities Monday that it said carried signatures of 1.8 million voters seeking President Nicolas Maduro's removal in a nationwide referendum.
An opposition statement said leaders decided to deliver the petitions in 80 sealed boxes early Monday without notifying news media to avoid potential clashes with Maduro's supporters. It said it collected more than nine times the required 200,000 signatures in under a week.
Maduro's approval rating has plummeted amid triple-digit inflation, widespread food shortages and near-daily power blackouts. Recent polls suggest two-thirds of Venezuelans want him out.
But ousting him is no easy task.
If the National Electoral Council verifies the signatures in the coming days, it would trigger a second petition drive during which 20 percent of the electorate, almost 4 million people, would have to sign before a referendum could be scheduled on removing Maduro before his term ends in 2019.
If a vote were held, the president would be removed only if the number of anti-Maduro votes exceeded the 7.6 million votes he received in the 2013 election. In December's parliamentary elections, opposition candidates mustered only 7.7 million even though they won control of the legislature by a landslide.
The move comes as Maduro digs in against what he calls opposition attempts to destabilize Venezuela. At a rally Sunday at the presidential palace to commemorate International Labor Day, he urged government supporters to defend his socialist administration.
"If the oligarchy were to do something against me and take this palace by one means or another, I order you, men and women of the working class, to declare yourselves in rebellion and undertake an indefinite strike," Maduro said.
Meanwhile, with oil prices low, the OPEC member nation is starved for dollars with which to import food and other basic supplies.
On Monday, authorities backed by armed members of the National Guard inspected several facilities belonging to Empresas Polar, the country's largest private company that last week shut down the last of its four beer factories for what it said was a lack of imported supplies.
Maduro has vowed to occupy idled factories but has so far stopped short of taking over Polar, which produced 75 percent of the beer consumed in Venezuela.
The deteriorating economic situation is increasingly drawing international attention. The Vatican on Monday confirmed that Pope Francis last month sent a letter to Maduro expressing concern. Although the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, would not disclose the contents of the letter, the pope has in the past offered to serve as a mediator between Venezuela's political factions.