The head of Venezuela's electoral authority has announced that it is unlikely that the next stage of the effort to force a recall referendum for President Nicolás Maduro can start until the end of October.
That date would essentially rule out the possibility that a referendum could not only lead to the end of the Maduro presidency, but to a general election as well.
Tibisay Lucena, who heads the National Electoral Council, said she cannot allow the political opposition to start collecting the signatures it now needs from 20 percent of the electoral register to force the referendum until all the regulations are fulfilled.
"The collection of the 20 percent of signatures could start at the end of October," she said. "If all the requirements are met."
She said the council would announce whether this had happened in mid-September.
The political opposition passed the first stage of the process earlier this year when it collected 407,622 signatures, more than the 195,000 it needed. These were later validated by the electoral authority headed by Lucena.
The second stage requires the opposition to collect 3,914,420 million signatures — a fifth of Venezuela's registered voters. The law then requires a 90-day wait before the referendum could actually be held.
This would make the end of January the earliest date for the vote to take place. This is weeks after the halfway point in the Maduro presidency, which falls on January 9, before which a new election would automatically be called if Maduro lost a recall vote. After that date, Maduro could still be removed from office if he loses the vote, but he would be replaced by his vice president who would then be allowed to govern until the end of his term in 2019.
The current vice president is Aristóbulo Istúriz, who is a veteran politician which has been in several political parties. Though he is now clearly a regime loyalist, Istúriz, who also served as education minister to former president Hugo Chávez, has a relatively moderate reputation.
The opposition reacted angrily to the announcement of the dates.
"Señora Lucena does not dare to tell the country that there will not be a referendum this year," former presidential candidate and a major promoter of the vote Henrique Capriles said via Periscope.
Follow Alicia Hernandez on Twitter @por_puesto