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Ruling party stalls looming poll fallout in Venezuela

With polls favoring an opposition win, Venezuela has shunted gubernatorial elections due in December into mid-2017. Unpopular president, Nicolas Maduro, says he wants to focus on the economy.

The head of the country's National Electoral Council (CNE), Tibisay Lucena, said on Tuesday that governors would now be elected "at the end of the first half of 2017," in a statement on state TV. No reason for the change was given. The 24 state governors' four-year terms were to end in early January, with elections set for December.

Maduro (pictured), who replaced the popular Hugo Chavez in 2013 after his death, has seen his ratings fall to 20 percent amid a deep economic crisis in the OPEC nation.

The center-right opposition won a landslide in legislative elections last December, taking control of the National Assembly for the first time since Chavez came to power. It is now seeking a referendum to remove Maduro from office, but must gather four million voters' signatures from Wednesday to Friday next week. It follows a decision by the Supreme Court that opponents must collect signatures from 20 percent of registered voters in each of Venezuela's 24 states in order to force a recall referendum. The opposition had argued it needed to garner only 20 percent nationally to trigger the vote.

The fall in global oil prices has sent Venezuela's economy into free-fall and opinion polls show seven in 10 Venezuelans want a change in government, as shortages of food and basic goods become a daily reality.

Maduro is clearly cautious of testing the popular will in elections. Two weeks ago the leader of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) said elections were not a "priority" in Venezuela. "The priority in Venezuela is economic recovery, it's helping the people," he said.

The next presidential vote is due at the end of 2018.

Meanwhile, thousands of Maduro supporters staged a rally in Caracas on Tuesday as a show of strength. Addressing the crowd, Maduro ally Diosdado Cabello said the president's 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.

Watch video 01:05

Protests against the Venezuelan government continue

jbh/jr (AP, AFP, Reuters)

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