Anti-Maduro protests in Caracas, Venezuela

Venezuela’s opposition cleared its first hurdle Tuesday in its uphill race to call a referendum on removing President Nicolas Maduro, whom it blames for driving the country to the brink of collapse.

But the leftist leader sent riot police to fire tear gas, blocking protesters from marching on the electoral authority’s headquarters, underlining the tension tearing at the country as it staggers through a painful crisis.

Maduro dismissed the effort to oust him, branding it “invalid.”

After weeks of pressuring the National Electoral Board (CNE) to allow the referendum process to go ahead, the opposition announced the board had accepted as valid 1.3 million signatures on a petition calling for a recall vote.

The decision moves the lengthy recall process to the next step, in which at least 200,000 signatories must confirm their identity with fingerprint scans.

Under the constitution, the opposition would then have to gather 4 million more signatures — 20 percent of the electorate — to trigger a recall vote.

Maduro’s opponents are racing to call a referendum before Jan. 10 — four years into his six-year term — when a successful recall vote would trigger new elections rather than transfer power to the vice president.

The opposition warns that the once-booming oil giant risks escalating unrest if authorities do not allow a referendum on Maduro’s rule, which has seen an economic downturn marked by severe shortages of food, electricity, medicine and other basic needs.

Seeking to pressure the electoral authorities, whom it accuses of dragging their feet, the opposition tried to march on CNE headquarters, but heavily armored riot police broke up the protest.

It is the third time in recent days that police have forcefully stopped attempts to march on the CNE. Protesters had angry words for the police, shouting “Traitors!” and “You’re hungry too!”

About 1,000 demonstrators took part in the march, lining up behind a giant Venezuelan flag and chanting, “This government will fall!” before police scattered them. (AFP)

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Anti-Maduro protests in Caracas, Venezuela

White paint thrown by protesters covers the boots of Bolivarian National Police, who block an opposition march in Caracas, June 7, 2016. (AP/Ariana Cubillos)

Anti-Maduro protests in Caracas, Venezuela

A woman protests in front of a line of Bolivarian National Police during an opposition demonstration in Caracas,  June 7, 2016. (AP/Ariana Cubillos)

Anti-Maduro protests in Caracas, Venezuela

Demonstrators carry a youth away from tear gas fired by police during an opposition demonstration in Caracas, June 7, 2016. Protesters attempted to march to demand that government pursue a recall referendum against President Nicolas Maduro. (AP/Ariana Cubillos)

Anti-Maduro protests in Caracas, Venezuela

Police push demonstrators with their shields during a protest in Caracas, June 7, 2016. (AP/Fernando Llano)

Anti-Maduro protests in Caracas, Venezuela

Opposition leader Henrique Capriles reacts is pepper-sprayed by Bolivarian National Police during a protest in Caracas, June 7, 2016. (AP/Fernando Llano)

Anti-Maduro protests in Caracas, Venezuela

A police officer aims pepper spray at opposition leader Henrique Capriles during a protest in Caracas, June 7, 2016. (AP/Fernando Llano)

Anti-Maduro protests in Caracas, Venezuela

A Venezuelan National Guardsman covers a woman as they run away from tear gas during a rally to demand a referendum to remove President Nicolas Maduro, in Caracas, June 7, 2016. (Reuters/Carlos Garcia Rawlins)

Anti-Maduro protests in Caracas, Venezuela

Police fire tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse opposition protesters on Francisco Fajardo Highway in Caracas, June 7, 2016. (AP/Fernando Llano)

Anti-Maduro protests in Caracas, Venezuela

Opposition supporters clash with Venezuelan National Guards during a rally to demand a referendum to remove President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, June 7, 2016. (Reuters/Carlos Garcia Rawlins)

Anti-Maduro protests in Caracas, Venezuela

Opposition supporters clash with Venezuelan National Guards during a rally to demand a referendum to remove President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, June 7, 2016. (Reuters/Marco Bello)

Anti-Maduro protests in Caracas, Venezuela

A protester at an opposition demonstration in Caracas, Venezuela, June 7, 2016. (AP/Fernando Llano)

Anti-Maduro protests in Caracas, Venezuela

Protesters argue with Bolivarian National Police blocking their path on the Francisco Fajardo Highway in Caracas, Venezuela, June 7, 2016. (AP/Fernando Llano)

Anti-Maduro protests in Caracas, Venezuela

Opposition leader Henrique Capriles, center, stands on Francisco Fajardo highway, lined by police, during a protest in Caracas, Venezuela, June 7, 2016. (AP/Fernando Llano)

Anti-Maduro protests in Caracas, Venezuela

An opposition supporter recovers from tear gas in Caracas, Venezuela, June 7, 2016. (Reuters/Marco Bello)

Anti-Maduro protests in Caracas, Venezuela

Venezuelan National Guards take cover behind their shields as they recover from tear gas, in Caracas, Venezuela, June 7, 2016. (Reuters/Carlos Garcia Rawlins)

Anti-Maduro protests in Caracas, Venezuela

An opposition supporter simulates a faint for hunger during a rally to demand a referendum to remove President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, June 7, 2016. (Reuters/Ivan Alvarado)

Anti-Maduro protests in Caracas, Venezuela

Opposition supporters recover from tear gas next to riot police, in Caracas, Venezuela, June 7, 2016. (Reuters/Carlos Garcia Rawlins)

Anti-Maduro protests in Caracas, Venezuela

A riot policeman shoots tear gas during a clash with opposition supporters at a rally to demand a referendum to remove President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, June 7, 2016. (Reuters/Ivan Alvarado)

Anti-Maduro protests in Caracas, Venezuela

Riot police stand guard during a rally to demand a referendum to remove President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, June 7, 2016. (Reuters/Ivan Alvarado)

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