Venezuelan opposition holds symbolic plebiscite challenging Maduro

Violence erupts as gunfire kills one and injures three during the vote, say prosecutors. The referendum is asking the public if they reject President Nicolas Maduro's new "peoples" assembly and if they want elections before his term ends.

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

People line up to vote in Caracas during an unofficial plebiscite against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro's government and his plan to rewrite the constitution. The sign reads "The people are the masters of their destiny." July 16, 2017.

Venezuelans on Sunday lined up across the country to vote in an opposition-sponsored referendum meant to reject President Nicolas Maduro's plan to rewrite the constitution amid a crippling economic crisis and months of anti-government protests that have led to over 100 deaths.

At least one person died a firing incident during the polls.

Voters are being asked three questions: if they reject Maduro's constituent 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. 

Maduro called for the Constituent Assembly, with powers to reform the constitution and supersede other institutions, in what he says is an attempt to bring peace after three months of fatal street protests.

The opposition is billing the plebiscite 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.

The polls opened at 7 am local time at some 2,000 centres around the country.

Queues formed early at some 2,000 improvised polling stations at theatres and roundabouts in the oil-rich nation of 30 million as Venezuelans furious over food shortages and rampant inflation sought to make their voices heard. 

Meanwhile, armed men on motorbikes killed a woman and wounded three people in Caracas on Sunday when they fired on Venezuelans voting in the opposition-organised ballot, prosecutors said.

The attack, in the working class neighbourhood of Catia, was being investigated, the public ministry said in a statement.

Venezuela's unrest has caused fatalities among both demonstrators and security forces, mostly from gunshots, as well as hundreds of arrests and thousands of injuries since April. 

But the atmosphere was mostly festive on Sunday under the Caribbean sun, with people blasting music, honking from their cars and waving flags.

"We want this government of Nicolas (Maduro) out. We're tired of not seeing solutions, there are people dying of hunger," Mercedes Guerrero de Ramirez, an 80-year-old former hospital worker, said. Ramirez was first in line at a polling station at 5:30 am in the border city of San Cristobal.

Nonetheless, the vote does not appear to augur a short-term change of government or a solution to the country's political stalemate.

TRT World spoke to Juan Carlos Lamas, who is covering the election and the political turmoil from Caracas.

Maduro rejects polls

Maduro said the plebiscite is illegal and meaningless. 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.

Government officials say the plebiscite violates laws requiring elections to be organised by the elections council.

The two elections this month are a show of force from each side. Both the government and opposition are effectively boycotting the other, hoping to legitimise themselves in the polarised environment.

Maduro has repeatedly refused to recognise the authority of the National Assembly since the opposition won control of it in a 2015 landslide election, which his critics call evidence he is eroding democratic institutions in order to retain power.

The former union organiser says the country is the victim of an "economic war" and that opposition protests are an effort to overthrow him with US connivance, which the United States has denied.

People at a polling station in Caracas during an unofficial plebiscite against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro's government and his plan to rewrite the constitution. The writing on the paper reads "July 16, Yes, Yes, Yes, Referendum." July 16, 2017. (Reuters)

Hinging on participation

The success of the symbolic referendum will be measured by how many millions participate.

The Democratic Unity opposition coalition has printed 14 million ballots for voters inside and outside the country of 31 million people.

Few expect turnout that high but analysts say participation by more than 8 million people would significantly hike pressure on the government two weeks before it holds elections for a constitutional assembly.

"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."

With improvised polling stations in more than 80 countries, the vote also includes the participation of the swelling ranks of Venezuelans who have moved abroad.

A woman casts her vote during an unofficial plebiscite against Venezuela President Nicolas Maduro's government, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. July 16, 2017. (Reuters)

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 is simultaneously holding a test-run for the July 30 vote.

Also, state telecommunications regulator Conatel has ordered radio and TV stations not to use the word "plebiscite" on air and has told them to pull opposition ads for the vote, according to Venezuela's main organisation of media workers.

AFP, AP, Reuters