CARACAS: Venezuela's opposition failedto draw large numbers on Friday in its latest protests against President Nicolas Maduro, and the national election board delayed a decision on the next stage of a possible referendum on his socialist rule.
The Democratic Unity coalition is running out of options to force a plebiscite this year to trigger a presidential election should Maduro lose.
If a referendum is held in 2017 and he loses, the vice president would take over for the second half of Maduro's six-year term, ensuring the Socialists stay in power.
Venezuela opposition seeks president's ouster
Maduro, 53, has seen his popularity plummet with the failing economy and is determined to stop a referendum this year that polls show he probably would lose.
The election board said a meeting to organize the next stage of the referendum process - the collection of 20 percent of voter signatures, or about 4 million - was postponed to Monday because of "threats" to the institution.
That was a reference to the opposition's latest street rallies on Friday to protest foot-dragging by the election board, which it accuses of bias.
Despite a Sept. 1 march that drew an estimated 1 million people, only hundreds turned up on Friday due to a mixture of fatigue, apathy and the need to stand in line for food.
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Opposition leader Henry Ramos said given the last-minute call for protests and that people were facing a "dictatorship," the mobilization was still a success.
Venezuela's 30 million people are suffering shortages, triple-digit inflation and a third year of recession.
That has led to looting, fights in lines and spontaneous demonstrations that could be a bigger threat to Maduro than the coalition-organized rallies.
"The situation is intolerable. I'm sick of lines, I can't find food or medicines," homemaker Edelmira Flores, 59, said as she waved a banner in a Caracas square on Friday.
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One of the opposition coalition's parties, Justice First, said five of its activists had been arrested overnight in Zulia and Anzoategui states, amid what activists say is a wave of repression by the Maduro government.
Officials say the increased opposition militancy masks a U.S.-backed coup plan, and have been displaying stashes of weapons and explosives to try and prove that.
"If we don't defend the revolution, we're finished," said Martha Rojas, 44, at a pro-Maduro rally in Caracas also attended by just a few hundred people.
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