Venezuala's opposition celebrated what it called a massive turnout for a weekend petition drive demanding a recall vote for President Hugo Chavez yesterday, defying government claims of fraud.
The Democratic Co-ordinator, a coalition of opposition groups, ran a nationwide operation called the Last Stage to ensure that anyone wanting to sign the recall petition could do so on the drive's last day yesterday.
Opposition leaders needed 2.4 million signatures, or 20 per cent of the electorate, to trigger a presidential recall referendum that could take place next year. The next scheduled elections are in 2006. They accuse Mr Chavez of dividing this oil-rich nation and trying to impose a Cuban-style regime. Mr Chavez claims that a corrupt political class which left a majority of Venezuelans in poverty wants its privileges back.
The opposition leader Antonio Ledezma said he was "certain" more than 2.4 million signatures were obtained. Official results must be certified by the National Elections Council within 30 days.
Mr Chavez, whose approval ratings in recent polls have reached 40 per cent, said on Sunday that his opponents were concocting a "megafraud". His government accused businesses of pressuring employees to vote. Willian Lara, a ruling party member of parliament, said that he was presenting evidence of multiple and illegal signatures to elections officials.
Jose Vicente Rangel, the Vice-President, said the opposition did not get enough signatures. He declared: "If they reach it, it will be through fraud."