Leopoldo Lopez Gil, father of Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, casts his vote during an unofficial plebiscite against Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro’s government in Rome, Italy. Image Credit: Reuters

CARACAS: Venezuelans went to the polls Sunday in a vote organised by the opposition aimed at gauging public support for Maduro’s plan to rewrite the constitution, against a backdrop of worsening political violence.

With authorities refusing to greenlight a vote presented as an act of civil disobedience and supporters of President Nicolas Maduro boycotting it, voters seemed set to reject the president’s controversial scheme.

The symbolic “plebiscite” comes two weeks ahead of a Maduro-backed vote to elect a citizens’ body that would revise the constitution. The opposition has told its supporters to stay away.

The cross-purpose initiatives have given rise to international worries — voiced by the Catholic Church and the head of the UN, Antonio Guterres — that the chances of bringing both sides together for dialogue has become more remote.

That, in turn, is stoking fears of more protests and running street battles with police, which have been persistent for the past three and a half months. Nearly 100 people have died in the unrest since the beginning of April.

While Maduro is deeply unpopular — with 80 per cent of Venezuelans criticising his rule, according to the Datanalisis survey firm — he enjoys backing from some, mostly poor, parts of the population and, most importantly, from the military.

Many Venezuelans, though, are less focused on the political power play than they are on getting by day by day under their country’s crushing economic crisis, which has meant shortages of food and medicine.

The opposition, which accuses Maduro of trying to gather dictatorial powers with the constitutional rewrite and other steps, said all was prepared for Sunday’s vote.

“Everything is ready,” one opposition figure, Maria Corina Machado, told AFP.

She predicted the vote would “not only reject the Constituent Assembly” — the body Maduro is seeking to have elected to come up with a new constitution — “but will give a mandate for a change of the regime, the end of the dictatorship and the start of a transition with a government of national unity.”

But Maduro, giving a national radio and TV broadcast, portrayed the vote as merely an “internal consultation by the opposition parties” with no electoral legitimacy.

“I call on all Venezuelans to participate peacefully in political events tomorrow, with respect for others’ ideas, with no incidents. Peace is what I ask,” he said.

He directed his followers instead towards a rival poll exercise that, unlike that of the opposition, has been approved by electoral authorities: a dry-run simulation of the election to take place on July 30.

He also repeated claims the opposition was tied to foreign powers — implied to be the “imperialist” United States — with the aim of toppling his government.

The international media, he railed, was covering the opposition vote in a way to justify foreign intervention.

According to Datanalisis, 70 per cent of Venezuelans reject Maduro’s plan for a Constituent Assembly.

Opposition leader Henrique Capriles said he expected 62 per cent turnout Sunday, or about 11 million people out of the country’s population of 30 million.

Five former Latin American presidents — from Bolivia, Colombia, Mexico and two from Costa Rica — were in Venezuela at the opposition’s invitation to act as observers of the vote, alongside electoral experts from various countries.

Former Mexican leader Vicente Fox said on arriving in Caracas that the vote could be the “beginning of the end” of Maduro’s government.

The head of the Organisation of American States, Luis Almagro, called on Venezuelans to take part in Sunday’s vote “to prevent the definitive collapse” of the country’s institutions.

On Friday, UN Secretary-General Guterres said talks were “urgently” needed between the opposition and government to stem the violence and find a “constitutional path” to peace.

Sunday’s vote is being held in 2,000 polling stations across the country, and in 80 countries for Venezuelans abroad.