Venezuela's Supreme Court on Monday suspended the outcome of an opposition primary vote, heightening uncertainty ahead of 2024 polls the international community hopes will restore democracy in the crisis-wracked country.
The United States said earlier this month it would ease long-standing oil and gas sanctions against President Nicolas Maduro's government after it struck a deal with the opposition to hold elections next year.
However, the government subsequently rejected the outcome of an opposition primary to choose a presidential candidate. That vote earlier this month was won by Maria Corina Machado, 56, who is banned from holding office for 15 years.
Maduro's administration has launched a probe into the primary, claiming it was tainted by fraud.
And Jose Brito, a dissident opposition lawmaker accused by some of being in cahoots with the Maduro government, filed an appeal against the primary to the Supreme Court.
"All the outcomes of the different phases of the electoral process... are suspended," read Monday's ruling.
Venezuela, which has the world's largest proven oil reserves, is dealing with a crippling political and economic crisis, marked by hyperinflation and a shortage of basic goods, which has pushed millions to flee the country.
The opposition, backed by several countries including the United States, did not recognize Maduro's 2018 reelection in a vote widely dismissed as fraudulent, and Washington ramped up sanctions.
A global energy crisis sparked by Russia's war on Ukraine has seen renewed global efforts to solve the crisis in Venezuela.
The primaries were held five days after the government and opposition agreed in talks mediated by Norway to hold presidential elections with international observers present in the second half of 2024.
The United States then said it would ease some sanctions, allowing the purchase of Venezuelan oil and gas for six months, warning this could be revoked if the electoral deal falls through.
Washington has urged Venezuela to reinstate banned candidates who wanted to seek election.
But the top court has reiterated its ban of Machado, for alleged corruption and backing international sanctions against Caracas.
Venezuelan officials are demanding the opposition hand over all documents relating to the primary election, including logs that could identify voters.