CARACAS - Venezuela's opposition called on Monday for mass rallies nationwide on Oct. 12 to push for a referendum to recall President Nicolas Maduro this year as they seek to oust his Socialist Party in an early presidential election.
The campaign for a recall referendum has run into opposition from the country's election board, which is imposing restrictions and argues it will take until 2017 to put the proper conditions in place.
The Democratic Unity coalition urged daily protests against "anti-constitutional" conditions by the board.
"We will overflow the streets peacefully all over the country so that the regime and its electoral agents know that the referendum ... will take place this year," opposition coalition head Jesus Torrealba told hundreds of supporters in Caracas.
Maduro's term runs until 2019. If Maduro lost a recall this year, as polls suggest he would given a brutal economic crisis, presidential elections would be called under the Constitution.
If next year, the vice president would take over and serve out his remaining two years.
Venezuela's electoral council last week said the earliest a referendum could be held, if at all, would be early 2017. That would effectively guarantee that the Socialist Party remains in power until 2019, even as food shortages and soaring prices have many Venezuelans skipping meals.
The election board has stipulated that 20 percent of voters in all 23 states must sign a petition Oct 26-28 supporting a referendum for it to go ahead.
The opposition argues the 20 percent threshold needs only to be met nationally, representing about 4 million signatures, and says the electoral council is a puppet of an increasingly authoritarian government.
The opposition spent the weekend debating strategy before Monday's announcement at which Torrealba was flanked by opposition leaders in a show of unity by the historically divided bloc.
Former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, who has championed the referendum, as well as hardliner Maria Corina Machado were present.
"The recall referendum has to be in 2016, the country's conditions demand it," said opposition supporter Joaquin Mendoza, a 68-year-old publicist.
"Otherwise there will be more dead in the street, more hunger," he added, citing Venezuela's high murder rate.
Venezuelan officials blame the opposition for the timing, saying the coalition took three months to reach a consensus on the referendum and that fraud was committed in a preliminary signature drive.