Opponents of Hugo Chávez, Venezuela's president, appeared on Monday to have gathered more than enough signatures to trigger a recall referendum on his rule, although the government rejected the petition as a mega-fraud.
Since Friday, tens of thousands have flocked to signature-gathering sites across the country as part of a four-day opposition campaign to collect more than the 2.4m signatures required to force a recall vote. Rough calculations by pollsters aligned with the opposition, as well as informal estimates by foreign observers, suggested the total would exceed 3m by the time the sign-up stations were to close on Monday night.
Even after discounting spoiled petitions and technically flawed signatures, which would be ruled invalid by the electoral authorities, it is expected there will still be sufficient signatures to exceed the threshold, and theoretically ensuring a recall vote takes place within four months.
If a referendum does take place in April, as opponents of the government hope, and Mr Chavez is voted out of office, as recent opinion polls indicate, fresh presidential elections will have to be held after 30 days.
Mr Chavez's mandate runs until 2007 and a recall referendum is seen as perhaps the last democratic opportunity to cool the tensions that have kept the world's fifth-biggest oil exporter on the boil for two years.
A bombastic former army officer who led a failed coup in 1992, Mr Chavez was elected five years ago on Tuesday. But his self-styled "Bolivarian revolution" and sometimes quixotic rule have provoked substantial domestic opposition.
Despite Monday's apparent opposition victory, the total must be officially tallied by the National Electoral Council, which has 30 days in which to validate the signatures after they are delivered next week.
Foreign observers, including the Organisation of American States and the Carter Center, the pro-democracy foundation, praised the signature drive as generally clean and a model of democratic participation.
"This is democracy in action," said Cesar Gaviria, secretary-general of the OAS. "Ninety per cent of the observers consider the process good, and the rest considered it reasonable."
However, there were no such words of praise from Mr Chavez who branded the process a "mega-fraud" and said he would challenge the validity of the signature-collecting procedure in the electoral council.
But what his government would complain about was unclear. If anything, there were signs over the weekend that the authorities had attempted to obstruct the process. On Sunday, the government ordered the closure of private airports around Caracas, in what opponents said was an effort to prevent boxes containing referendum petitions collected in the interior from reaching the capital.