Embattled Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro says no recall referendum against him will take place before 2017 at the earliest, as he seeks to stall a growing opposition push to hold a vote this year.
With the country teetering on the brink of economic collapse, socialist Maduro's opponents are pushing for a vote before January 10, 2017. A successful recall ballot before that date would trigger new elections, while one later would simply transfer power to the vice president.
Saturday, Maduro, a one-time bus driver and union leader, was adamant. "The recall referendum will be held next year. Period," he said.
On Friday, electoral officials declared more than 600,000 signatures on a recall petition invalid, setting off a new round of opposition accusations that electoral authorities are working in tandem with Maduro to scuttle the recall process.
The government has countered with claims of widespread fraud that include accusations that the names of at least 11,000 dead people and 2,000 convicts were among those on the petition submitted in late May.
The latest political maneuvering comes as polls show as many as 7 in 10 Venezuelans want Maduro out. It also comes as the patience of the Venezuelan public is tested by skyrocketing inflation, long lines at supermarkets for basic food necessities, and a significant jump in food looting and violent crime.
The International Monetary Fund predicts that inflation in Venezuela — already the world's highest — could more than double in 2016, topping out at more than 720 percent.
The country's economic crisis was spawned by falling global oil prices and decades of financial mismanagement, forcing Maduro last month to announce a 60-day national state of emergency. That decree was immediately rejected by the opposition-controlled National Assembly.
The opposition won control of legislature in December. But its initiatives aimed at forcing a recall vote have been routinely undercut by the country's Supreme Court.