By Andrew Cawthorne and Daniel Kai
CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela's opposition failed to draw large numbers on Friday in its latest protests against President Nicolas Maduro and the national election board delayed a decision on the next stage of a possible referendum on his socialist rule.
The Democratic Unity coalition of about 30 political groups appears to be running out of options to force a plebiscite before Jan. 10, the cutoff to trigger a presidential election should Maduro lose the referendum vote.
If a referendum is held after then, the half-way point of Maduro's term, his vice president would take over, meaning the Socialists would stay in power.
Maduro, 53, has seen his popularity plummet on the failing economy and is determined to stop a referendum this year that polls show he probably would lose.
The election board said a meeting to organize the next stage of the referendum process - the collection of 20 percent of voter signatures, or about 4 million - was postponed to Monday from Friday because of "threats" to the institution.
That was a reference to the opposition's latest street rallies on Friday to protest foot-dragging by the election board, which it accuses of being in Maduro's pocket.
Despite a Sept. 1 march that drew an estimated 1 million people, only hundreds of supporters turned up on Friday due to a mixture of fatigue, apathy and the need to stand in line for food and medicine. [nL1N1BD0DN]
"The situation is intolerable. I'm sick of lines, I can't find food or medicines. How is this possible?" homemaker Edelmira Flores, 59, said as she waved a banner in a square.
Venezuela's 30 million people are suffering shortages, triple-digit inflation and a third year of recession. That has led to looting, fights in shopping lines and spontaneous demonstrations that could be a bigger threat to Maduro than the coalition-organized rallies.
Opposition leaders cast their latest events as an "anti-summit" in reference to the Non-Aligned Movement meeting on Venezuela's Margarita island this week. Heads of state are invited for the weekend to the 120-nation Cold War-era bloc's summit but so far only Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe is here.
One of the opposition coalition's parties, Justice First, said five of its activists had been arrested overnight in Zulia and Anzoategui states, amid what activists say is a wave of repression by the Maduro government.
Officials say the increased opposition militancy masks a U.S.-backed coup plan, and have been displaying stashes of weapons and explosives to try and prove that.
(Editing by Alexandra Ulmer and Bill Trott)