After protest vote, Maduro foes warn of 'zero hour' for Venezuela's democracy

Monday , July 17, 2017 - 11:00 AM

Rachelle Krygier and Nick Miroff

(c) 2017, The Washington Post.

CARACAS, Venezuela -- Opponents of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro pledged to defy the government with escalating protest tactics in the coming weeks, a day after showing their strength in an unofficial referendum that they said drew more than 7 million votes condemning his rule.

Opposition leaders likened the Sunday vote to an act of mass protest, characterizing the turnout as an endorsement of their campaign to prevent Maduro from pushing forward with a controversial plan to rewrite Venezuela’s constitution.

Of the nearly 7.2 million Venezuelans said to have participated in the balloting - organized by opposition leaders, not election authorities - more than 98 percent voted to reject the government’s plan to draw up a new constitution, opposition leaders said. The vote also urged Venezuela’s armed forces to uphold the existing constitution and support early elections.

Félix Seijas Rodríguez, director of the Delphos polling agency, said he was “amazed by the results” of the referendum, given that it was organized in only three weeks and faced significant challenges. The Maduro government blasted the exercise as illegitimate and hurled threats at organizers, while attempting to enforcing a news blackout.

Socialist party officials who back Maduro dismissed the 7.2 million vote figure as wildly inflated, claiming Monday that opposition supporters voted multiple times and that the organizers of the referendum did not bother to actually count the ballots. They did not offer proof for their claims.

Anti-Maduro voters also faced the threat of violence. In one tough Caracas neighborhood, gunmen opened fire outside a polling station, killing one and injuring four.

On July 30, the Maduro government will ask Venezuelans to elect representatives for a “constituent assembly” enpowered to rewrite the 1999 constitution. Government opponents see that effort as a death blow to what remains of Venezuelan democracy, particularly if the assembly allows the unpopular Maduro to remain in office beyond 2019, when his term will expire.

At least 92 people have been killed in more than three months of unrest and near-daily clashes between security forces and protesters. Opposition leaders said Monday that Venezuela’s democracy had reached the “zero hour,” requiring an intensification of street demonstrations and defections from within the government.

“We interpret [the results] as a message from the people telling us to keep doing what we have been doing, plus much more,” said Juan Andrés Mejia, an opposition legislator who organized the referendum. “We will respond to that call accordingly.”

Some opposition supporters said they were disappointed that the referendum fell short of the 11 million votes they were hoping for. The final reported tally of 7.2 million votes was also lower than the 7.7 million who voted for the opposition in 2015 parliamentary elections.

But opposition leaders were quick to point out that the referendum was only symbolic, lacking the logistical support and infrastructure of an official election. Only about 15,000 polling stations were set up for the referendum, compared with more than twice as many during ordinary elections.

“This wasn’t a presidential election,” said John Magdaleno, a political consultant and the director of the Polity polling firm. “It’s just an unofficial consultation.”

Both activists and analysts compared the turnout to the numbers of votes the late Hugo Chávez obtained when he held similar referendums.

Chávez never got more than 6.5 million people to vote in his favor in the referendums, analysts noted, and when Venezuela’s economy was humming and he was reelected president in 2012, he obtained just over 8 million votes.

He died of cancer in 2013, and Maduro, his Socialist Party successor, has fared poorly in his shadow.

Despite the latest demonstration of opposition to his plans, few believe that Maduro is willing to change course. Dismissing the referendum results as inconsequential, Maduro called on his opponents to “sit down to start a new round of dialogue” with his government.

Maduro’s opponents are boycotting the July 30 vote, and in recent surveys, 85 percent of Venezuelans say they reject changes to the constitution. Critics say the assembly is a naked attempt to usurp the powers of Venezuela’s democratically elected parliament - which Maduro’s opponents won control of in 2015 - and turn the country into a full-blown dictatorship.

Rather than forcing the government to change course, the referendum results are expected to reenergize the opposition ahead of a potential showdown over the July 30 vote.

“People will be disappointed if they expect the government to react directly to the results or change anything,” said Luis Vicente León, a political analyst and the director of the Datanalisis polling agency.

“More than 7 million people participated actively in an act of civil disobedience and ignored the government’s allegations that it was an illegal one,” he said.

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