CARACAS Venezuela's electoral authority on Thursday suspended the next phase of a recall referendum against unpopular President Nicolas Maduro, sparking outcry from the opposition who accused the Socialist government of dictatorial tactics.
The oil-rich country is mired in a brutal economic crisis that has families skipping meals amid food shortages and triple-digit inflation. Maduro, a former bus driver and union leader elected three years ago to replace late leader Hugo Chavez, has seen his popularity tumble in hand with the recession.
His foes had vowed to push for a recall referendum against him this year, which, if successful would have triggered fresh presidential elections that polls show Maduro would lose.
The election board had already said there would be no such vote this year, and appeared to put the final nail in the coffin on Thursday night.
Citing court orders, the electoral body said in a statement it was suspending next week's signature drive to collect around 4 million signatures and trigger the vote.
Earlier on Thursday, Venezuelan ruling party officials said several regional courts had voided an earlier signature drive by the opposition, due to fraud allegations.
"We hope that justice will be served and that those responsible for this swindle will be detained," said Socialist Party No. 2 Diosdado Cabello during a political rally on Thursday.
The Democratic Unity coalition blasted the decision, adding it would outline its action plan on Friday.
"We have a government of thieves using power to maintain itself," opposition lawmaker Jorge Millan said on Twitter.
"But in the street the people are demanding a recall, and no one will stop us!"
The opposition needed a referendum this year because under Venezuela's constitutional rules, should Maduro lose a plebiscite next year, his vice president would take over rather than there being a new election, denying the opposition their opportunity to take power after 17 years of socialism.
Maduro's rivals warn that by preventing a democratic solution to the crisis, the government is stoking chances of unrest in violent Venezuela.
"The government is pushing a very dangerous scenario in which the crisis worsens," opposition leader and two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles said on Twitter.
Earlier this week, Venezuela's election board delayed an election for state governorships to 2017 from December, giving the government more breathing room before going to the polls..
(Reporting by Corina Pons and Alexandra Ulmer; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Peter Cooney, Andrew Cawthorne and Michael Perry)