Venezuela's electoral authority on Thursday suspended the next phase of a recall referendum to remove President Nicolas Maduro from power, further crippling the opposition campaign,
The move sparked outcry from the opposition who accused the Socialist government of dictatorial tactics.
The commission said it obeys rulings from courts which earlier in the day ruled against the opposition's efforts to rid the crisis-stricken oil power of Maduro.
The steps were the latest blow for the center right-dominated opposition, whose goal of forcing a referendum this year through a series of preliminary petitions now looks practically impossible.
Maduro has vowed to hold on to power in the South American oil exporter, where an economic crisis has prompted food shortages and looting.
The pro-Maduro governors of the states of Apure, Aragua, Bolivar, Carabobo and Monagas announced that local judges had annulled the results of the last petition, held in June, in their states because of alleged fraud in the counting of signatures.
Maduro's number two Diosdado Cabello said later in a speech: "Let us hope that those responsible will now be sought out and detained and go to prison for the deception they have committed."
The opposition MUD coalition says Maduro and his allies control the courts and electoral authorities and are using them to cling to power.
Maduro's opponents had been hoping to mount a fresh petition next week, the last stage necessary for calling a referendum.
But that round is now suspended, pending further court rulings, because of the ruling Thursday by the electoral commission.
"We hope that justice will be served and that those responsible for this swindle will be detained," said Socialist Party No. 2 Diosdado Cabello during a political rally on Thursday.
The Democratic Unity coalition blasted the decision, adding it would outline its action plan on Friday.
"We have a government of thieves using power to maintain itself," opposition lawmaker Jorge Millan said on Twitter. "But in the street the people are demanding a recall, and no one will stop us!"
Other Venevuelan Twıtter users dıd not seem to be surprised by the ruling.
The entity in charge of elections in Venezuela (CNE) has just suspended the referendum that was meant to happen. What a surprise.
— John P. Acquaviva (@IAm2skilled) October 21, 2016
In a week #Venezuela has: Delayed state governor elections. Delayed municipal elections. Suspended signature drive for recall referendum.
— manuel rueda (@ruedareport) October 21, 2016
— Wyre Davies (@WyreDavies) October 21, 2016
Electoral authorities had warned that if the first-round petition was annulled in any state, that key stage in the referendum process would be void.
But the chances of Maduro being removed by referendum this year already looked impossibly slim. The electoral authorities have said a referendum could not take place before mid-January.
Under constitutional rules, if voters do not remove Maduro from office by January 10, his hand-picked vice president will finish his term, which ends in 2019.