By Alexandra Ulmer and Andrew Cawthorne
CARACAS (Reuters) - Foes of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro vowed on Thursday to push for a recall referendum against him this year, defying the country's election authority which said any vote to remove the unpopular socialist leader could not take place until early 2017.
The timing of a potential plebiscite is key: if held this year and Maduro loses, new elections would be triggered. If a vote is delayed to 2017, however, Maduro would be replaced by his vice president, as per the Constitution.
Oil-rich Venezuela is in the throes of a major economic crisis that has families skipping meals due to food shortages and galloping inflation. Maduro's popularity has sunk in tandem with the crisis, and polls currently show he would lose a plebiscite on his rule.
"The recall referendum will be in 2016," Jesus Torrealba, head of the Democratic Unity coalition, said late on Thursday, promising protests and slamming the election authorities as undemocratic. "You don't have national support or international backing."
The opposition, made up of a disparate multiparty coalition, will meet this weekend before unveiling its strategy on Monday, Torrealba added, a delay that frustrated some supporters anxious for a swift response.
With some seeing a referendum this year as doomed, fissures were starting to appear between opposition politicians.
Opposition leader Henrique Capriles said he would not opine until Monday. But hardliner Maria Corina Machado said on Twitter it was time for "civil disobedience."
Other politicians may argue the coalition should shift its focus to removing Maduro next year.
"The moderate faction is more likely to prevail, but keeping hopes alive that a referendum can lead to genuine change will be an uphill struggle, and opposition divisions risk coming to the surface, exactly as the government intended," said Nicholas Watson, an analyst with Teneo Intelligence.
Venezuelan officials blame the opposition for the delay, saying the coalition took three months to reach a consensus on a push for the referendum and that fraud was committed in a preliminary signature drive earlier this year.
"We have to make sure we finish burying the old political class - oligarchic, corrupt little yankees and sell-outs," Maduro said on Thursday during a televised appearance at a community-run farm in Cojedes state, during which he rode a horse and drove a combine harvester.
The election board also rejected opposition demands that the next phase of the recall - collecting the signatures of 20 percent of the country's registered voters requesting the referendum - should be at a national level, with 19,500 voting machines available.
The board said instead that the 20 percent threshold must be met in each of Venezuela's 23 states, during the Oct. 26-28 signature drive, and only 5,400 machines would be available.
(Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer, Andrew Cawthorne and Deisy Buitrago; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer and Andrew Cawthorne; editing by Alan Crosby, Diane Craft and G Crosse)