CARACAS (Reuters) - Elections for Venezuela's state governorships will be held in 2017 rather than December as previously expected, the election board said on Tuesday, giving the unpopular socialist government a short breathing space before going to the polls.
Critics say authorities have delayed the state elections - and are also seeking to derail an opposition push for a referendum to recall President Nicolas Maduro - because they are scared of letting Venezuelans have their say.
Maduro, who replaced the popular Hugo Chavez in 2013 after his death, has seen his ratings halve to just over 20 percent amid a deep economic crisis in the OPEC nation.
The 23 state governors' four-year terms were to end in early January, with elections anticipated for December.
But National Election Board head Tibisay Lucena, who the opposition say is close to the government, announced they would instead be held towards mid-2017.
Though Lucena did not give reasons, government officials have said exceptional measures are justified in Venezuela due to a U.S.-led "economic war" against them and the oil price crash which has slashed national revenues.
With Chavez suffering from cancer but having just won re-election himself, the socialists swept to victory in 20 states at the last regional elections in late 2012.
But opinion polls show they would currently fare badly at any election, and government sources have said they are hoping for an oil price recovery to help their cause.
The opposition Democratic Unity coalition is pushing for a referendum this year to remove Maduro. But even if they collect the 4 million signatures needed to trigger the vote, in a drive later this month, any plebiscite would be held in 2017.
So under Venezuela's constitutional rules, should Maduro lose next year, his vice president would take over rather than there being a fresh presidential election, dashing the opposition's hopes of ending 17 years of socialist rule.
Venezuela's next presidential vote is due at the end of 2018.
(Reporting by Andrew Cawthorne and Diego Ore; Editing by Alistair Bell)