July 3, 2017 / 4:53 PM / 21 days ago

Venezuela opposition challenges Maduro with unofficial referendum

Venezuelan opposition leader and Governor of Miranda state Henrique Capriles (L) shakes hands with Julio Borges, President of the National Assembly and deputy of the Venezuelan coalition of opposition parties (MUD), next to Henri Falcon (C), governor of the state of Lara, during a meeting of the MUD in Caracas, Venezuela July 3, 2017.Carlos Garcia Rawlins

CARACAS (Reuters) - President Nicolas Maduro's foes announced plans on Monday for an unofficial referendum to let Venezuelans have their say on his plan to rewrite the constitution and the opposition's alternative push for an election to replace him.

The opposition, starting a fourth month of street protests against the socialist government it decries as a dictatorship, will organise the symbolic vote for July 16 as part of its strategy to delegitimise the unpopular Maduro.

Venezuelans will also be asked their view on the military's responsibility for "recovering constitutional order" and the formation of a new "national unity" government, the Democratic Unity coalition announced.

"Let the people decide!" said Julio Borges, the president of the opposition-led National Assembly, confirming what two senior opposition sources told Reuters earlier on Monday.

The opposition's planned vote, likely to be dismissed by the government, would be two weeks ahead of a planned July 30 vote proposed by Maduro for a Constituent Assembly with powers to reform the constitution and supersede other institutions.

"The government is trying to formalise dictatorship," said opposition leader Henrique Capriles, warning the South American OPEC nation was approaching "zero hour".

According to a recent survey by pollster Datanalisis, seven in 10 Venezuelans are opposed to rewriting the constitution, which was reformed by late leader Hugo Chavez in 1999.

With anger running high over a devastating economic crisis under Maduro, turnout for the opposition's referendum would likely be high, although the coalition needs to pull off a complicated logistical feat in just two weeks and without state support.

Maduro, 54, Chavez's unpopular successor, says the assembly is the only way to bring peace to Venezuela after the deaths of at least 84 people in and around anti-government unrest since the start of April.

"The people have a right to vote and the people will vote on July 30, rain or shine!" Maduro said to cheers during a speech at an open-air event on Monday with candidates to the new assembly, during which he also prayed and danced.

Opponents say Maduro's plan is a ruse to consolidate the ruling Socialist Party's grip on power and avoid a conventional free election that opinion polls show he would lose.

Henri Falcon (L), governor of the state of Lara, talks to Julio Borges, President of the National Assembly and deputy of the Venezuelan coalition of opposition parties (MUD), during a meeting of the MUD in Caracas, Venezuela July 3, 2017.Carlos Garcia Rawlins

Critics also accuse the government of threatening people with layoffs or loss of state-provided homes if they do not vote. Maduro on Monday urged state workers to participate, saying for instance that every single employee of state oil company PDVSA should cast a ballot.

'Darkness' Not Forever

The next presidential vote is due by the end of 2018, but protesters have been demanding it be brought forward, even as Maduro's opponents worry about how free and fair such a vote would be.

The two highest-profile potential opposition candidates for a presidential election are Capriles, who has been barred from holding office, and Leopoldo Lopez, who is in jail.

Slideshow (3 Images)

Opposition protesters also want solutions to a crushing economic crisis, freedom for hundreds of jailed activists, and independence for the National Assembly.

Maduro, a former foreign minister who was narrowly elected in 2013 after Chavez's death from cancer, says protesting opponents are seeking a coup with U.S. support.

His allies say that a new Constituent Assembly would annul the existing legislature and would also remove chief state prosecutor Luisa Ortega, who has split with the socialists during the crisis and become a thorn in their side.

Officials have turned on Ortega and are petitioning the Supreme Court to remove her. Tensions rose on Monday with the comptroller's office announcing a national audit of state prosecutors' offices while the Supreme Court's constitutional chamber issued a decision saying she had "abused her power."

Ortega's office described it as "revenge for the current institutional crisis" and accused comptroller officials of "abuses" in trying to enter buildings without prior notice.

Her office later said it had requested information from the United States about two nephews of Venezuela's first lady who were found guilty of trying to carry out a multimillion-dollar drug deal, a demand likely to anger Maduro who has tried to play down the controversial case.

Ortega's office also said it was recusing 17 magistrates of the Supreme Court.

"The darkness does not last forever nor does it extend in its totality," Ortega said in an address to the National Assembly. "We must make big efforts to reactivate the institutional and electoral paths."

Additional reporting by Alexandra Ulmer and Andreina Aponte; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne and Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Frances Kerry and Mary Milliken

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