CARACAS, Venezuela (AFP) — Venezuela’s opposition, encouraged by a massive turnout in a symbolic vote against President Nicolas Maduro, weighed a new strategy Monday to intensify protests and stop his plan to rewrite the constitution.
The opposition coalition Democratic Unity Table (MUD) now wants to outline its final offensive in its goal to oust Maduro, after nearly four months of protests that left 96 dead.
Nearly 7.2 million Venezuelans — out of 19 million possible voters — cast ballots in the symbolic poll against Maduro, university guarantors said with 95 per cent of votes counted.
The result may not have been binding, but Venezuela “sent a clear message to the national executive and the world,” announced Central University of Venezuela president Cecilia Garcia Arocha, noting that 6,492,381 voted in the country and 693,789 abroad.
Garcia said final results would be released Monday.
“We do not want to be Cuba, we do not want to be a country without freedom,” said Julio Borges, leader of the opposition-controlled parliament.
“Today, Venezuela said yes to a dignified country, a democratic country, a country where people do not have to go because they have no future. The mandate the people have given us is clear.”
Political scientist John Magdaleno said the referendum was a success because it was organized largely by ordinary citizens in a short period of time, and with just 2,000 polling stations, compared to 14,000 during the last elections, in 2015, that saw the opposition sweep parliament.
According to Borges, once all ballots are counted, there will be some 7.5 million votes in the latest poll, which he said would be sufficient to overturn Maduro’s mandate if there was a referendum.
The central question before voters concerned Maduro’s intention to hold an election on July 30 to choose 545 members of a citizens’ body called the “Constituent Assembly” that would redo the constitution.
A dry run of that election was also held Sunday, to detract from the opposition vote which the government branded “illegal.”
The ruling party questioned the results in advance, noting that the process is not binding and is “illegal” because it lacks the endorsement of the National Electoral Council (CNE) — which the opposition accuses of supporting the government.
– Government ‘is falling’ –
Civil groups, the United Nations, the Organization of American States, the United States and several governments in Latin America and Europe backed the anti-Maduro vote.
The electoral process was attended by a group of former Latin American presidents, including Mexico’s Vicente Fox, who was declared “persona non grata” by the government.
The Mexican government, critical of Maduro, called for the results of the opposition consultation to lead to a “negotiated solution” to help “restore” democracy.
Ordinary Venezuelans blaming food and medicine shortages on Maduro’s policies seized on the vote as a way of telling the president to leave office.
People took to Caracas’ streets after the vote shouting “this government is falling” as motorists honked their horns in celebration.
During balloting, 49-year-old voter Tibisay Mendez told AFP that Maduro and his officials “only want to hold on to power. We are voting to get them out.”
Many wore white and the colors of the national flag as they cast their votes.
Government supporters — and public workers worried about keeping their jobs — stayed away.
Several Latin American countries and the Catholic Church have criticized Maduro’s move to redraft the constitution.
– Dire economy –
The opposition accuses Maduro of driving the country into bankruptcy, and of using the Constituent Assembly to entirely sideline the legislature.
The president, in turn, says the opposition is collaborating with the “imperialist” United States to topple his government.
He says his proposed Constituent Assembly is “the only path” to peace and economic recovery, while relying heavily on the still-loyal military to assert his authority.
But some cracks are appearing in his camp. The most stark was the rebellion of Attorney General Luisa Ortega, who came out against the Constituent Assembly. She holds onto her office, for now, remaining a potent voice of dissent in government.