The Venezuelan opposition accused Venezuela’s election authority on Thursday of ignoring the people’s will by quashing their push for a referendum this year on recalling unpopular socialist leader President Nicolas Maduro.
They have vowed to protest if their call remains unanswered.
The election board gave a timetable on Wednesday for a potential referendum to take place in early 2017. In the case that Maduro loses, the vice-president would take over under constitutional rules on succession.
Blaming Maduro for the OPEC nation's deep economic crisis, the opposition had campaigned for a referendum to be held this year because that would have triggered a new presidential election had Maduro lost, as polls indicate he would.
That would have given the opposition the chance to end 17 years of socialist rule in Venezuela.
However, by pushing the referendum back to next year – if indeed it takes place at all, given tough rules applied to the next phase – the election board's decision has essentially ensured the Socialist Party will retain power until the next presidential election, set for late 2018.
"They are violating the constitution ... showing total lack of respect for citizens," said Jesus Torrealba, head of the Democratic Unity coalition, vowing there would be massive street demonstrations.
Opposition leaders met on Thursday to prepare their response.
Hardliners may now favour civil disobedience tactics instead of pushing for a referendum.
"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.
In the outcome of the oil plunge and a failing state-led economic model, Venezuela is going through a third year of recession, with shortages of basics such as bread and painkillers. The recession has also led to vast shopping lines and triple-digit inflation.
Just last Monday, the opposition governor of Venezuela's second-largest state, Henrique Capriles, declared a state of emergency over a lack of food for public schools, blaming the socialist government's "misguided" policies.
Maduro had been under immense international pressure to allow a referendum, from countries such as the United States to major Latin American nations.
The government has blamed the opposition for the delay because it took three months this year for their 30 diverse groups to begin the push for the recall vote.
As well as pushing a potential referendum into 2017, the election board rejected the opposition's insistence that the next phase – the collection of the signatures of 20 percent of the country's registered voters – should be at a national level with 19,500 voting machines available.
Instead, the board said the 20 percent threshold must be met in each of Venezuela's 23 states, during an Oct. 26-28 drive, and only 5,400 machines would be available.
Early in September hundreds of thousands of opposition supporters flooded the streets of Venezuela’s capital to protest against the embattled Maduro, demanding his ouster.
The protest was reportedly the biggest mass demonstration against the ruling Socialists in more than a decade.