Venezuelan opposition activists march in Caracas on September 16, 2016 demanding the government set a date for a recall referendum against President Nicolas Maduro
Caracas (AFP) - Banging empty pots, protesters in crisis-stricken Venezuela vented anger at the authorities Friday after a new delay in the process of calling a referendum on removing President Nicolas Maduro from power.
Hundreds of protesters marched down Liberator Avenue in central Caracas behind a giant banner reading "We won't take it" after the electoral authorities indefinitely postponed announcing dates for the final stage in the referendum process.
Maduro's opponents, who blame the leftist leader for a crushing recession and severe food shortages, must collect four million signatures in three days to trigger a recall referendum.
The National Electoral Council (CNE) had been due to announce the timeline Friday.
But late Thursday it said the announcement -- which had already been pushed back from Tuesday -- would have to wait because opposition protests were threatening the safety of its staff.
The speaker of the opposition-majority legislature, Henry Ramos Allup, accused the authorities of "sabotaging" the referendum.
"The more they delay, the angrier we get," said one protester, 41-year-old Robert Sanchez, banging a pot with a spoon -- a traditional form of protest in much of Latin America.
Police blocked protesters at one point during their march, prompting scuffles.
Hundreds of Maduro supporters also took to the streets of Caracas, marching to the CNE's headquarters, where motorcyclists clad in the red of the president's socialist party paraded in a show of force.
Smaller opposition protests broke out in Maracaibo in the northwest and San Cristobal on the Colombian border.
- Time running out -
The center-right opposition coalition behind the referendum push, the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), has been racing to complete the lengthy process by the end of the year.
Eighty percent of Venezuelans want a change of government, according to the polling firm Datanalisis.
But a recall vote would have to be held by January 10 in order to trigger new elections. After that date, Maduro's hand-picked vice president would serve out the rest of his term, to 2019.
That would extend the socialist "revolution" launched in 1999 by late president Hugo Chavez to at least 20 years.
Oil-rich Venezuela has skidded into crisis as global crude prices have plunged since mid-2014, pushing Chavez and Maduro's socialist model to the brink.
Venezuelans spend long hours lining up outside supermarkets and pharmacies only to find bare shelves and soaring prices inside. Shortages have triggered outbreaks of looting and riots.
The country is facing its third year of deep recession this year, with inflation set to top 700 percent, according to the International Monetary Fund.
- Battle over timeline -
If the opposition gets the required four million signatures in favor of a recall vote -- 20 percent of the electorate -- the CNE will have a month to verify them, then three months to organize the referendum.
The council has already said it is looking at late October for the three-day petition drive. The opposition says that is too late.
It alleges the electoral authorities are in bed with Maduro -- along with the Supreme Court, which has systematically blocked opposition bills since it took control of the legislature in January.
Seeking leverage, the opposition has organized a series of protests.
It estimates a million people took to the streets in the largest one on September 1.
Maduro calls his opponents "fascists" who are waging an "economic war" to destabilize his government, backed by "American imperialism."
To alleviate growing hunger, he has launched an emergency supply plan overseen by 18 army generals -- one each for rice, beans, toilet paper and 15 other staples.