CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro said on Saturday that a potential recall referendum against him would be in 2017 at the earliest, pushing back against growing opposition pressure to have the vote this year.

If Maduro, a socialist, were to lose a recall referendum in 2016, a new presidential election would be held. If it only occurs next year, his vice president would replace him in the event of a loss.

"There will be no blackmailing here. If the recall referendum's requirements are met, it will be next year and that's it," Maduro said on state television.

"If the requirements aren't met, there will be no referendum and that's it," he added.

Adversaries of the ruling Socialist Party say a subservient election board is seeking to stall the referendum to recall Maduro, who is facing heavy criticism due to a deep recession, the world's highest inflation and Soviet-like shortages of food and other basic items.

In a small step in the opposition's effort to remove Maduro, the election board said on Friday it will begin a process of validating the signatures of citizens seeking the referendum, one of the requirements necessary to proceed to a vote.

Opposition leaders are warning that a referendum must be allowed to keep public anger over the political and economic crisis in the country from spilling over.

(Reporting by Eyanir Chinea; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Paul Simao)