CARACAS: A furious Venezuelan opposition vowed mass street protests next week, accusing the socialist government on Friday of staging a coup by blocking efforts for a recall referendum against unpopular President Nicolas Maduro.
With Maduro vowing to hold on to power, his opponents cranked up the heat in a stand-off that is destabilising the volatile, oil-rich South American state, stricken by food shortages and violent crime.
The opposition MUD coalition called for nationwide demonstrations from next Wednesday against the decision to annul a key stage in the referendum process.
“A coup d’etat was carried out yesterday against all Venezuelans,” Henrique Capriles, a leading MUD figure, told a press conference, shouting furiously.
Authorities on Thursday quashed the opposition’s main strategy to get rid of the man they accuse of driving the oil-rich country to the brink of economic collapse.
The National Electoral Council (CNE) said it had indefinitely suspended the recall referendum process after criminal courts in five states ruled the opposition had committed fraud in an initial petition drive.
The opposition had been gearing up for the last hurdle in the complex process: a three-day drive starting next Wednesday to collect signatures from four million voters demanding a recall referendum.
Now that the courts and electoral authorities have stymied that bid, Capriles said on Wednesday would instead mark the start of a wave of street protests.
“That day is going to be the beginning of a mobilisation across the whole country,” he said.
“We will take Venezuela from end to end. People will be mobilised in every corner of our country to restore constitutional order.”
An opposition rally on September 1 drew hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in Caracas. Capriles vowed next week’s action would be more sustained.
“We will mobilise as much as we have to,” he said.
Analysts have warned of a risk of violent unrest in this country of 30 million people.
Hit by the fall in crude oil prices, the economy has crashed. Food shortages have sparked looting over recent months.
Riots in 2014 left 43 people dead.
“The referendum was going to be a pressure valve,” said Jose Vicente Haro, a constitutional expert.
“When the institutional paths are closed, there is a rise in violence and political conflict.”
The top heads of the armed forces have previously pledged loyalty to Maduro but Capriles has insinuated in the past that mid-ranking officers suffering in the crisis may feel differently.
“I hope the patriotic military servicemen of our country will uphold the constitution,” he said on Friday.
The United States said it was “deeply concerned” by the decision to halt the referendum process.
“By doing so, we believe the CNE prevents the Venezuelan people from exercising their important constitutional right,” said State Department spokesman John Kirby.
Maduro has accused Washington of plotting to overthrow him. He brands the crisis a capitalist conspiracy.
Capriles said he and seven other opposition figures had received court orders barring them from leaving the country.
Maduro’s camp hinted it would seek to have opposition leaders jailed over the alleged fraud.
It has previously sidelined opponents by jailing them, such as Leopoldo Lopez, the leader of the antigovernment protests in 2014.
“Let us hope that those responsible will now be sought out and detained and go to prison for the deception they have committed,” Maduro’s number two, Diosdado Cabello, said in a speech.
Public support for Maduro has crumbled under the pressure of a crippling recession, soaring inflation and widespread shortages of food, medicine and basic goods.
A recent poll found more than 75 per cent of Venezuelans disapprove of Maduro.
The MUD says Maduro and his allies control the courts and electoral authorities and are using them to cling to power.
Maduro accused the opposition of “gigantic fraud,” in a speech before leaving on a tour of the Middle East.
There he planned to push his plan for major oil producers to slash output, to boost prices in the hope of dragging Venezuela out of crisis.