Venezuelan opposition leaders have called for a ‘mega protest’ after President Nicolas Maduro’s announced plans for a new constitution drafted by unelected workers and farmers.
Maduro used the May Day holiday to call for a new ‘worker’s constitution’ in an attempt to quell weeks of protests that began after the judiciary tried to strip power from parliament.
But opposition leaders branded the move ‘lunacy’ and accused Maduro of trying to pull off a ‘coup d’etat’ by having yet more unelected people meddle in the business of government.
Opposition leader Henrique Capriles called for protesters to ‘block the streets’ from Tuesday ahead of a ‘mega protest’ on Wednesday. He tweeted: ‘People, into the streets! You must disobey such lunacy!’
As Maduro made his announcement in Caracas on Monday, security forces sprayed tear gas and water cannon at anti-government demonstrators elsewhere in the capital.
The scenes will sharpen international concerns over Venezuela’s adherence to democracy and fears it is slipping over a precipice to civil conflict.
Opposition leaders are calling for immediate elections to be held for a chance to peacefully oust Maduro before his term officially ends at the end of next year.
The leader of the opposition-held Congress, Julio Borges, said: ‘What Maduro is proposing in his desperation is that Venezuela never again manages to have direct, free and democratic voting.’
Maduro said he was invoking his power to create a 500-member constituent assembly representing a ‘working class base’ and local councils to rewrite the constitution – cutting out the Congress.
The decree was needed to ‘block the fascist coup’ he said threatened the country, repeating terms portraying his Socialist government as the victim of a US-led capitalist conspiracy.
The new constitution-writing entity would be ‘a citizen’s constituent body, not from political parties – a people’s constituent body,’ he said, adding the National Electoral Council would start work on the process on Tuesday.
Maduro’s move mirrored that of his late Socialist predecessor Hugo Chavez, who in 1999 had a 131-member Constituent Assembly of various representatives draw up Venezuela’s current constitution. The text was overwhelmingly passed by a referendum.
Back then, though, the charismatic Chavez enjoyed enthusiastic public support. Maduro, in contrast, is disapproved of by seven in 10 Venezuelans according to pollsters Venebarometro.
Political analyst Nicmer Evans said that with his new proposal Maduro is ‘playing for time at all cost, in order to stay in power’.
‘The pro-Chavez movement is convening the only kind of election it can win by manipulating the way voting is held,’ said Eugenio Martinez, an analyst who specializes in elections.
Anti-Maduro antipathy was evident on the streets Monday. Riot police officers clashed with hundreds of protesters, some throwing stones, who tried to break through security barriers to the electoral council headquarters.
Opposition leaders have vowed no letup in their protests demanding early elections to get rid of Maduro. They blame him for an economic crisis that has caused shortages of food and medicine.
Clashes between protesters and riot police left 28 people dead last month, according to prosecutors.
A lawmaker suffered head injuries in Caracas, photographs published online by his supporters showed. Similar protests took place in other towns across the country.
‘I am out fighting for Maduro to go. This is a dictatorship in disguise,’ said Matilde Rodriguez, 67, from the working class Petare district. ‘Venezuela is in intensive care. There is no food and they’ll kill you for a pair of shoes.’
Analysts say street rallies are one of the few means the opposition has left of pressuring Maduro. The president’s demand for a new constitution was a way of running out the clock on demands for elections, they said.
‘Maduro is gaining time at the expense of everybody, including by stomping on the roadmap left by Chavez himself,’ said Socialist-leaning Nicmer Evans.
‘This constituent assembly Maduro wants is a clear betrayal of Chavez and the people.’
The violence and political spiral in Venezuela is increasingly unsettling other countries and regional blocs.
Pope Francis has offered to have the Vatican mediate, but was rebuffed by the opposition, which walked away from a previous attempt at dialogue in December when the government did not free political prisoners or set early elections as demanded.
Maduro initially voiced support for the pope’s offer. But on Monday, he said the only response to dialogue was the constituent assembly he was setting up.
The president has rejected opposition calls for general elections before his term ends. He had said he was willing to hold regional polls postponed in December, but electoral authorities did not set a date.
‘They want elections? Constituent assembly,’ Maduro said.
The president has bristled at what he calls international interference in his country’s affairs.
Venezuela last week said it was quitting the Organization of American States after it and other international bodies expressed concern about the country’s adherence to democracy.
Another regional bloc, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States is to hold an extraordinary meeting on Venezuela in El Salvador on Tuesday.
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