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Venezuela Opposition Starts Multi-pronged Push to Oust President

  • Reuters

Jesus Torrealba (C), secretary of Venezuela's coalition of opposition parties (MUD), talks to the media next to his fellow politicians during a news conference in Caracas, March 8, 2016.

Jesus Torrealba (C), secretary of Venezuela's coalition of opposition parties (MUD), talks to the media next to his fellow politicians during a news conference in Caracas, March 8, 2016.

Venezuela's opposition alliance launched a campaign on Tuesday to oust President Nicolas Maduro, vowing to hold protest rallies and push for both a recall referendum and constitutional amendment to end his presidency.

"Change is coming and no one can stop it," the head of the Democratic Unity coalition Jesus Torrealba told reporters.

Hungry for power after 17 years of socialist rule begun by the late Hugo Chavez, Venezuela's opposition capitalized on public ire over the crisis-hit economy to win control of the National Assembly legislature in December.

Now it is counting on a multi-pronged strategy against Chavez's successor to bring him down half-way through his six-year term in the South American OPEC nation.

The coalition said its more than two dozen parties had decided unanimously to activate "all mechanisms for change" in the constitution in search of a "national unity government."

Despite the show of unity, however, the coalition is notoriously fractious, with a moderate wing led by twice-presidential candidate Henrique Capriles and a more radical side headed by jailed protest leader Leopoldo Lopez.

"The MUD's strategy reflects its internal divisions. Today's announcement had been postponed twice in the last five days.

Lacking consensus, the coalition has opted to pursue three distinct but overlapping strategies," wrote Nicholas Watson, of Teneo Intelligence consultancy.

Despite trying to maximize their chances with a multiple approach, the opposition faces hostile judicial and electoral institutions that can frustrate its plans with delaying or blocking tactics in favor of the government.

Government figures condemn the opposition's plans as a U.S.-backed attempt to bring about a coup d'etat in the nation of 29 million people with the world's largest oil reserves.

"They want rallies to generate violence and bring about a coup, supported by U.S. imperialism," the Socialist Party's powerful No. 2 Diosdado Cabello said on Monday.

Rallies to Start at Weekend

The opposition vowed to begin rallies from Saturday in Caracas. Activists will, however, be wary of repeating the experience of 2014 when protests turned violent, leading to the death of 43 people on both sides, hundreds of injuries, thousands of arrests, and widespread damage to the economy.

That push, led by hardliners, did not win significant support from Venezuela's poor majority and arguably strengthened Maduro by enabling him to show a strong hand.

Two years on, however, public frustration is high and small protests are breaking out daily over food and medicine shortages, power and water cuts, and transport price rises.

Masked youths calling for Maduro's resignation faced off with police on Monday in the western city of San Cristobal.

But Torrealba insisted: "We don't want masks or stones, we want the people in the street peacefully."

Capriles is pushing a recall referendum, as allowed under Venezuela's constitution half-way through a presidential term, and has already begun campaigning for it across the country.

Under the constitutional terms for the plebiscite, the opposition would need to collect 3.9 million signatures in three days, ratified by the national electoral board, to trigger a referendum three months later. The number who vote against Maduro would need to be more than the 7.5 million who backed him in the 2013 presidential election.

If authorities delay such a vote into 2017, however, then Maduro's vice president would be allowed to complete his term.

Chavez easily won a 2004 recall referendum with 59 percent of the vote, but Maduro, 53, a former bus driver and foreign minister, lacks his charisma, popular touch and spending power.

The other mechanism sought by the opposition coalition is a constitutional amendment to cut Maduro's term. That could be requested either by the National Assembly or 2.9 million voters, clearing the way for a referendum.

But Venezuela's Supreme Court, which has backed the government in a slew of recent controversial rulings, may shoot down any attempt to reduce the current presidential term.

Political risk consultancy Eurasia predicted leading figures in the ruling "Chavismo" movement would rally round Maduro to protect him this year against the opposition, but possibly move against him in 2017 for a change from within.

Dire conditions, however, are increasing the risk of popular unrest, it warned. "Conditions are ripe for social explosion."