Julio Borges president of the National Assembly and deputy of the Venezuelan coalition of opposition parties (MUD) addresses the media after an unofficial plebiscite against President Nicolas Maduro's government and his plan to rewrite the constitution, in Caracas, Venezuela July 16, 2017. (Reuters)
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CARACAS — Venezuela's opposition vowed on Monday to escalate protests after a massive vote against President Nicolas Maduro in an unofficial plebiscite that the leftist government mocked as a "gigantic fraud."
After months of demonstrations that have led to nearly 100 deaths, the Democratic Unity coalition said it brought 7.2 million people out on Sunday for an informal referendum intended to de-legitimise a leader they call a dictator.
"We're going to be on the streets every day, the whole country is going to rise, it's the start of zero hour," said opposition legislator Tomas Guanipa, drawing on military jargon for a decisive operation or moment of truth.
Maduro's foes are demanding a general election and want to stop his plan to create a controversial new legislative super-body called a Constituent Assembly in a July 30 vote.
Opposition strategy may include lengthy road blockades and sit-ins, a national strike, or possibly a march on the Miraflores presidential palace, similar to events before a short-lived coup against Maduro's predecessor Hugo Chavez in 2002.
"We don't want a fraudulent Constituent Assembly imposed on us. We don't want to be Cuba. We don't want to be a country without freedom," Julio Borges, who leads the opposition-controlled legislature, said shortly after midnight when the referendum results were announced.
On three questions at Sunday's event, opposition supporters voted overwhelmingly - by 98 percent - to reject the proposed new assembly, urge the military to defend the existing constitution, and support elections before Maduro's term ends, according to academics monitoring the vote for the opposition.
Sunday's reported 7.2 million participation compared with 7.7 million opposition votes in the 2015 legislative elections that it won by a landslide and 7.3 million votes for the opposition in a 2013 presidential poll narrowly won by Maduro.
Opposition organisers said the turnout followed just two weeks of organisation, with voting at just 2,000 polling stations, compared to 14,000 for the 2015 vote.
"The result is a remarkable show of force for Venezuela's opposition," New York-based Torino Capital said, noting participation also meant openly defying the government.
"The results seem to confirm that the opposition would easily defeat the government in any election."
Most Venezuelans oppose the Constituent Assembly, which will have power to rewrite the constitution and annul the current opposition-led legislature, but Maduro is pressing on anyway for the vote in two weeks' time.
"The ruling Socialist Party cannot win a free and fair election of any kind, and the Constituent Assembly is designed to resolve their collective electability problem by tilting the electoral playing field in one direction," Eurasia consultancy said.
"And even if it is generating discomfort internally, including among the security apparatus, most groups within the ruling coalition seem willing to see if Maduro can in fact get away with it, given the fact that exit costs remain very high."
State Media Ignore Vote
Maduro, whose term is due to end in early 2019, has dismissed Sunday's event as an internal exercise by the opposition with no bearing on his government. He says the Constituent Assembly, which will have powers to rewrite the constitution and override all other institutions, is the only way to bring peace to the nation of 30 million people.
State media largely ignored Sunday's event, concentrating instead on a simultaneous, government-organised practice run for the July 30 vote. Maduro's allies accused the opposition of inflating numbers with multiple voting and false registrations.
"Ten-year-old kids voted, thousands of minors, Australians, US citizens ... a gigantic fraud," Socialist Party official Jorge Rodriguez said, mocking Sunday's vote which also took place among Venezuela's large diaspora communities.
Foreign Minister Samuel Moncada called a news conference to accuse international media of complicity with the opposition to exaggerate Sunday's vote and denigrate Maduro.
He said some media had passed off photos of government supporters participating in the practice run as if they were opposition sympathisers at their referendum event.
The total vote would be impossible to check, he said, as opposition organisers were going to burn ballots. The coalition has said it will do that in coming days to keep the vote secret and prevent reprisals by officials.
"Yesterday was a super experiment in manipulating reality," Moncada said. "The media have a permanent pact with the opposition."
This year's political turmoil has taken a heavy toll on Venezuela: 95 deaths in unrest since April, thousands of injuries, hundreds of arrests, and further damage to an economy in its fourth year of decline.
The latest fatality came on Sunday when gunmen shot a 61-year-old woman in a crowd of opposition voters in the poor Caracas neighbourhood of Catia. Hundreds of people were besieged in a church for hours during the melee, a witness said.
Though polls show the opposition has majority support and his foes repeatedly call for a free and fair election as their top demand, Maduro insists they are US pawns intent on sabotaging the economy and bringing him down through violence. (Reuters)