Thousands of Venezuelans staged rival demonstrations Wednesday for and against President Nicolas Maduro in a new test of strength as the opposition pushes for a vote on driving him from power.
A week after a mass protest in the capital Caracas, Maduro opponents rallied near offices of the electoral authorities nationwide, demanding a recall referendum in the crisis-stricken country by the end of the year.
The leftist leader's supporters held rallies of their own nearby, but the rival demos -- far smaller than last week's -- went off with no reports of major clashes.
Oil giant Venezuela's once-booming economy has gone into meltdown as crude prices have crashed since mid-2014.
Outrage is mounting over shortages of food and medicine, threatening Maduro and the socialist "revolution" his late predecessor, Hugo Chavez, launched in 1999.
"We have to do something. Voting and peaceful protest are the only weapons we have," said Rosmina Castillo, 52, demonstrating against Maduro in the town of Los Teques, just southwest of the capital.
She was among a crowd of some 1,500 opposition protesters who gathered a block away from roughly the same number of Maduro supporters. A metal barrier and lines of police kept them apart.
"We're here defending the revolution against an attack by this unpatriotic right," said state oil company employee Alexander Rangel at a pro-government demo in Caracas.
The protests' target, the electoral authorities' 24 regional offices, were closed and tightly guarded by police.
Maduro accuses his opponents of plotting protest violence in a bid to oust him.
"No one will bring fascist violence to Venezuela, nor coup-mongering, nor hate," he told a crowd of supporters Wednesday.
The center-right opposition, for its part, accuses the government of waging an authoritarian crackdown.
Dozens of protesters were arrested in the aftermath of last Thursday's rally, human rights groups say.
The opposition says around one million people flooded the streets of Caracas that day, the biggest protest in decades. Maduro put the turnout at a maximum of 30,000 people.
But the massive crowds, dressed in white and venting months of pent-up anger, gave the opposition new momentum.
"The opposition's roadmap is to try to keep people participating," political analyst Luis Vicente Leon said. "The challenge is to stay active and peaceful in the street while pushing a referendum."
- War of words -
Long lines and bare supermarket shelves have become the norm in Venezuela, where inflation is forecast to top 700 percent this year.
Outbreaks of looting have erupted and violent crime is festering.
Maduro blames the crisis on an "economic war" by Venezuelan elites backed by "American imperialism."
Although the opposition has won control of the legislature, it has been hamstrung by a Supreme Court it condemns as loyal to Maduro.
If Maduro loses a recall vote before January 10 -- as opinion polls predict he would -- it would trigger new elections. After that date, he would simply hand power to his hand-picked vice president.
Maduro's number two, Diosdado Cabello, vowed there was "no chance" of the recall referendum taking place this year.
"We demand the constitution be respected. We have the right to a referendum," fired back Jesus Torrealba, spokesman for the opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD).
Cracks in Maduro camp
In the next stage of the referendum process, the opposition must gather four million signatures within three days.
The electoral authorities are due to announce the dates for that petition next Tuesday.
The opposition has called for a full 24 hours of protests the following day.
"They are pushing the people's patience," senior opposition figure Henrique Capriles said of Maduro's side.
"What will happen if they keep pushing? A social explosion."
Maduro meanwhile faces growing pressure within his own camp.
Former Chavez minister Ana Elisa Osorio, once a steadfast ally, told AFP this week that recent events show Maduro is "not up to the job."
Crucially, however, the embattled president has so far maintained the backing of the security forces.
Seeking to contain the crisis, he has given the army vast powers over food distribution, and on Wednesday announced a new $25-million spending program for arms and equipment for the national police force.