By Andrew Cawthorne and Daniel Kai
CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela's national election board on Wednesday dashed opposition hopes of holding a referendum this year to remove unpopular socialist President Nicolas Maduro.
If the opposition next month successfully collects 20 percent of total voter signatures requesting the plebiscite, then it "could take place halfway through the first quarter of 2017," the board said in a statement.
The timing is crucial because if Maduro were to lose a referendum this year, as polls indicate he would because of an economic crisis, that would trigger a new presidential vote, giving the opposition a chance to end 17 years of socialism.
But should he lose a referendum next year, Maduro, 53, would be replaced by his vice president, maintaining the Socialist Party in power until the OPEC nation's next presidential election scheduled for the end of 2018.
"We reject the anti-constitutional elements of this announcement by the election board," said Jesus Torrealba, head of the opposition Democratic Unity coalition, which has been holding street rallies for months demanding a vote this year.
Conditions around the next phase toward a referendum, the collection of 20 percent of voter signatures or about 3.9 million in total from Oct. 26 to 28, also appeared designed to stymie the opposition.
Opposition members had wanted the 20 percent threshold to be at the national level and 19,500 vote machines to be placed around the country to maximize Maduro foes' ability to register signatures.
But the board approved only 5,392 machines and said the threshold had to be met in each state.
Opposition leaders, who say the years of socialism under Hugo Chavez and then Maduro have wrecked Venezuela's economy and stamped on basic rights, accuse the election board of being in the government's pocket.
They contrast Venezuela's laborious referendum process with the speed with which neighboring Colombia is organizing a referendum on a peace deal with guerrillas.
But government officials say the opposition coalition, of about 30 diverse groups, wasted time at the beginning of 2016 reaching consensus on seeking to activate the referendum.
They also accuse them of fraud in an initial signature collection drive of 1 percent of voters.
"There will be no referendum in 2016, it's not under discussion. They are cheats," the Socialist Party's No. 2, Diosdado Cabello, said on state TV.
After narrowly winning election in 2013, Maduro has seen his popularity plummet amid an economic crisis. Venezuela's 30 million people are suffering shortages, huge shopping lines, triple-digit inflation and a third year of recession.
Many people are skipping meals.
(Additional reporting by Eyanir Chinea; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Peter Cooney)