CARACAS/SAN CRISTOBAl, Venezuela: Venezuela’s opposition kicked off an unofficial referendum on Sunday to increase pressure on President Nicolas Maduro as he seeks to create a legislative superbody that his adversaries call the consolidation of a dictatorship.
The symbolic poll, which also asked voters if they want early elections, is intended to further dent Maduro’s legitimacy amid a crippling economic crisis and months of anti-government protests that have led to around 100 deaths.
The opposition has cast the vote, which began at 7am local time at some 2,000 centres around the country, as an act of civil disobedience to be followed by “zero hour,” a possible reference to a national strike or other escalated actions against Maduro.
Queues formed early at many polling stations in the oil-rich nation of 30 million as Venezuelans furious over food shortages and rampant inflation sought to make their voices heard.
“We want this government of Nicolas (Maduro) out. We’re tired of not seeing solutions, there are people dying of hunger,” said Mercedes Guerrero de Ramirez, an 80 year-old former hospital worker, who arrived at the polling station at 5:30am in San Cristobal city near the Colombian border and was first in line. But the vote does not appear to augur a short-term change of government or a solution to the country’s political stalemate. Maduro, 54, said the plebiscite is illegal and meaningless.
Instead, the leftist leader is campaigning for an official July 30 vote for the new assembly, which will be able to rewrite the constitution and dissolve state institutions. Voters on Sunday are being asked three questions: if they reject the constitutional assembly, if they want the armed forces to defend the existing constitution and if they want elections before Maduro’s term in office ends in 2018.
“The reality of tomorrow will be very different from that of today,” said National Assembly president Julio Borges on Sunday morning. “When dawn breaks on Monday, we will see all that was achieved today …There has to be a profound change in how this country is run.
“Some public employees, under government pressure not to participate in opposition events, are seeking creative ways to vote in the plebiscite without being noticed. The vote also includes participation of the swelling ranks of Venezuelans who have moved abroad to escape the Opec nation’s increasingly dire economic panorama.
Venezuelans waving flags and chanting “no more dictatorship” were casting ballots from Florida to Australia. The opposition is hoping millions will turn out and promises the results will be available by Sunday evening. But they face some major obstacles.
They will not have access to traditional electoral infrastructure for the hastily convened plebiscite, and the elections council – which the opposition calls a pawn of Maduro – is simultaneously holding a test-run for the July 30 vote.