Caracas (AFP) - Venezuela on Tuesday postponed gubernatorial elections due in December until mid-2017 after deeply unpopular President Nicolas Maduro said the country needs to focus on reviving its economy instead of elections.
The head of the National Electoral Council (CNE), Tibisay Lucena, said governors would now be elected "at the end of the first half of 2017," in a statement on state TV that gave no reason for the change.
The plunge in global oil prices has sent OPEC member Venezuela's economy into free-fall, putting Maduro on the defensive.
The announcement comes as the leftist leader's United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) takes an increasingly wary approach to popular elections.
The Venezuelan left dominated at the polls for 17 years, starting with the election of Maduro's late mentor, Hugo Chavez, in 1998.
But that ended last December, when the center-right opposition won a landslide in legislative elections, taking control of the National Assembly for the first time since Chavez came to power.
The opposition is now seeking to call a referendum on removing Maduro from office, but accuses the CNE of stalling.
Two weeks ago, Maduro said elections were not a "priority" in Venezuela.
"The priority in Venezuela is economic recovery, it's helping the people," he said.
With severe shortages of food and basic goods a daily reality here, opinion polls show seven in 10 Venezuelans want a change in government.
Thousands of Maduro supporters staged a rally in Caracas Tuesday seeking to show their strength.
Addressing the crowd, the president's right-hand man, former legislative speaker Diosdado Cabello, vowed the Maduro camp would "make it difficult" for the opposition to force a recall referendum.
"Nicolas Maduro was elected president and he must finish his term," Cabello said.
The opposition faces a new challenge in the drawn-out recall process next week, when it must gather four million voters' signatures from Wednesday to Friday.
The CNE has already infuriated the opposition by ruling it is too late to hold a recall vote by January 10 -- the deadline to trigger a new presidential election.
If voters remove Maduro from office after that date, his hand-picked vice president will finish his term, which ends in 2019.