Venezuela's opposition has successfully gathered one percent of voters' signatures from each of the 24 states in the country in the first phase in their efforts for a referendum to remove President Nicolas Maduro, National Electoral board (CNE) said on Monday (1 August).

Tibisay Lucena, chief of CNE, made clear that 98% of the 408,000 signatures collected by the Opposition Democratic Unity (MUD) coalition were validated. The collected signatures were twice the minimum requirement of 1% or 200,000.

However, she said that officials identified around 1,000 falsified signatures. "The electoral authority will ask the state prosecutor's office to investigate," she added.

Lucena also did not give out a date for the next phase, in which the opposition must collect 20 percent – nearly 4 million signatures, in only 3 days. Leaders have demanded for the council to set a date for the next phase.

The timing of the referendum is important because if the referendum is held this year and Maduro loses, it will prompt a new presidential vote, ousting the socialist party from power for the first time in 17 years. However, if he loses the referendum next year, he will be replaced by his vice president, with the socialist party still at the helm of power. The oil rich country will go to polls only towards the end of 2018.

Freddy Guevara, opposition lawmaker, in a tweet said, "Only one step remaining. The better Venezuela is coming."

Henrique Capriles, who lost to Maduro in the 2013 presidential elections, has been the main leader to push for a recall referendum and asked his supporters to come out and protest later this week to push for the next phase.

Previously, US Secretary of State John Kerry asked Venezuela to "not to play a game of delay" over the recall referendum.

Critics and the opposition blame Maduro's socialist economic policies for the recession, high rate of inflation, shortages of food and other essential supplies.

Venezuela
Venezuela's National Electoral Council (CNE) President Tibisay Lucena speaks during a news conference in Caracas, Venezuela August 1, 2016.REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins