Venezuela’s opposition has appealed for calm after electoral authorities cancelled a meeting on whether they could go ahead with efforts to remove President Nicolas Maduro in a referendum.
The National Electoral Board (CNE) had been due to deliver its ruling on whether it accepted or rejected an initial petition with 1.8 million signatures endorsing a recall vote against Maduro.
Maduro’s opponents say the country faces an explosion of unrest if authorities do not allow the recall referendum this year.
But just after their meeting with the CNE was due to start on Thursday, Jesus Torrealba, opposition spokesperson, said the electoral authorities had postponed it indefinitely.
“We are going to announce to the nation the steps we will take in the face of this unprecedented situation,” Torrealba said.
“We call on the Venezuelan people to remain calm.”
Venezuela’s economy is forecast to contract 8 percent this year, with inflation of 700 percent.
The economic crisis has made daily life increasingly difficult for Venezuelans, who face hyperinflation, shortages of food and medicine, daily power outages, the near-paralysis of government offices and violent crime.
On Thursday, protesters demanding food made a run for the presidential palace in an apparently spontaneous outburst of anger within the heart of Caracas.
More than 100 people charged down the main thoroughfare in central Caracas chanting: “No more talk. We want food.”
The protesters got within about a half dozen blocks of the presidential palace before police in riot gear headed them off and began firing tear gas.
Police pushed the crowd back as some demonstrators kicked their plastic shields while more officers ran to the scene and filled in the streets between the protesters and the palace.
“Close to 100 people were coming on one main avenue,” said Al Jazeera’s Virginia Lopez, reporting from Caracas. “They met a different group that was coming on a different avenue.
“It was not a planned protest, it was spontaneous. This is quite rare in the capital. It was people chanting that they wanted food.”
Unlike the organised protests, which draw largely from what’s left of Venezuela’s middle class and are never allowed by police to reach the president palace, Thursday’s disturbance was driven mostly by people from the slums overlooking the central district and who form the core of the socialist government’s support.
Speaking from the presidential palace later in the day, Maduro pledged to stop those who he said are trying to destabilise the country, but did not make any direct references to the protest.
“They come at us every day looking for violence in the streets, and each day the people reject and expel them,” he said. “We’re winning peace on the corners, on the streets, on the avenues and in the slums.”
The opposition accuses electoral authorities of dragging their feet on the referendum process to protect Maduro. Maduro’s camp in turn accuses the opposition of massive fraud in its petition drive.
Even if the CNE eventually accepts the petition submitted on May 2, Maduro’s opponents would face a long road to call a referendum.
And they may not get there by the crucial date of January 10 – four years into the leftist leader’s six-year term – at which point a successful recall vote would no longer prompt new elections but simply pass power to Maduro’s vice president.
For the petition to be accepted, the CNE must recognise at least 200,000 signatures as valid.
Signatories would then have to present themselves in person to confirm their identity with a fingerprint scan.
The opposition would then have to submit a second petition, this time with four million signatures, or 20 percent of the electorate, for the CNE to organise a referendum.
The pro-recall camp would need more votes than the 7.5 million Maduro won in the 2013 election to remove him from office.
The CNE could easily stall the process until next year, when Maduro’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) could orchestrate his replacement by another party leader.