Electoral officials in Venezuela have suspended a recall referendum campaign against President Nicolas Maduro, a move that further challenges opposition efforts to oust the socialist leader in the wake of a deepening econonomic crisis.
Thursday's decision by the electoral council came after several regional courts voided the results of an earlier signature drive against Maduro due to fraud allegations.
Later on Thursday, former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles said he and seven other opposition leaders had received court orders banning them from leaving Venezuela.
Capriles, who was the opposition's candidate in both 2012 and 2013 presidential elections against then-President Hugo Chavez and Maduro respectively, shared an image of the court order barring him from leaving the country on his official Twitter account.
"Once again they are wasting their time. Wait for announcements in the next few hours," he said on Friday.
The opposition blames Maduro for an economic implosion that has seen severe food shortages, a healthcare crisis, hyperinflation, violence and looting in a once-booming country that is home to the world's largest oil reserves.
Capriles previously blasted Thursday's decision to suspend the recall as unconstitutional.
"We alert the diplomatic corps in our country that the government today is pushing toward a very dangerous scenario," Capriles said on Twitter.
|Capriles, who was barred from leaving the country, said the Electoral Authority's decision to suspend the recall was "unconstitutional"[Reuters]|
The electoral council's decision was in response to rulings by courts in four Venezuelan states that found there was fraud in the initial stage of the petition drive. During that stage the opposition had collected signatures from 1 percent of the electorate.
"In adherence with the constitution, the National Electoral Council abides by the decisions ordered by the tribunals and has sent instructions to postpone the process of signature gathering until new judicial instructions are known," the council said in a statement.
To trigger a stay-or-go referendum, the opposition needed to collect and validate some four million signatures from 20 percent of the electorate in 24 states over three days next week.
The opposition needed a referendum this year because under Venezuela's constitutional rules, should Maduro lose a plebiscite next year, his vice president would take over rather than there being a new election, denying the opposition their opportunity to take power after 17 years of socialism.
The ruling comes on the heels of another decision by the electoral council this week to suspend by about six months state elections that were slated for December, giving the government more breathing room before going to the polls
Polls say a majority of Venezuelans want Maduro gone.
The opposition staged its largest street demonstration in years on September 1, with a rally in Caracas demanding a referendum against Maduro be held in 2016. But apart from that protest, most anti-government rallies this year have been relatively small and quick to disperse.
On Thursday night, opposition leaders started calling for more massive street protests in the face of election authority's ruling.
"This is the time for national unity," wrote former presidential candidate Maria Corina Machado on her Twitter account.
"Every single person must take to the streets, with strength and without fear, to make the transition a reality."