Venezuela will not be holding a referendum against President Nicolas Maduro this year, country's election board announced on Wednesday (21 September). The development comes as a jolt for the opposition parties, who were seeking to activate the plebiscite.

The referendum is possible in 2017 if the opposition can gather 20% of total voter signatures over three days between October 26-28.

The National Electoral council said in a statement after a meeting with the government and the opposition that "the event could be held in the middle of the first quarter of 2017."

Jesus Torrealba, the chief of the opposition Democratic Unity Coalition (MUD) said: "We reject the anti-constitutional elements of this announcement by the election board."

"We are working on the strategy for our fight. We are quite sure of this: Millions of Venezuelans are going to mobilize and hand (Maduro) a resounding electoral defeat -- as well as political and moral defeat," he said.

The timing of the event is important because if Maduro loses the plebiscite this year, which polls have suggested that he would, it will prompt a new presidential vote. If he loses a referendum vote next year, Maduro's Vice-President would finish his term, retaining the socialist government in power until 2019.

Venezuela has been going through its worst economic crisis. Opposition leaders say that years of socialism under Hugo Chavez and Maduro have destroyed the country's economy.

The oil-rich country plunged into economic crisis when global crude prices plummeted in mid-2014. The country is now in its third year of recession and has seen acute food and medicine shortages along with inflation which is at an all time high of 700%. The opposition also accuses the electoral board of doing the government's bidding.

Maduro has maintained the stance that his critics are 'fascists' who are waging a battle to undermine his government.

Nicolas Maduri
Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro speaks during his weekly broadcast "En contacto con Maduro" (In contact with Maduro) in Caracas, Venezuela on 26 July 2016 [File photo] Miraflores Palace/Handout via REUTERS