Venezuela’s opposition held an unofficial referendum on Sunday to increase pressure on President Nicolas Maduro as he seeks to create a legislative superbody that his adversaries call the consolidation of a dictatorship.
Dozens of people were queuing in Caracas neighbourhoods, including Chacaito and Los Palos Grandes, before polling stations opened at 7am (1100 GMT), according to the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) opposition coalition.
Delegates and volunteers, many dressed in white, manned tents and tables at some 14,300 polling stations nationwide.
The authorities have refused to greenlight a vote that has been presented as an act of civil disobedience and supporters of Maduro are boycotting it.
The vote is not binding because it lacks the backing of the National Electoral Council.
The symbolic poll, which will also ask voters if they want early elections, is intended to further dent Maduro’s legitimacy amid a crippling economic crisis and three months of anti-government protests that have led to nearly 100 deaths. The vote does not appear to augur a short-term change of government or a solution to the country’s political stalemate.
Maduro, 54, says Sunday’s plebiscite is illegal and meaningless. Instead, the leftist leader is campaigning for an official July 30 vote for the new assembly, which will be able to rewrite the constitution and dissolve state institutions.
“Even with rain, thunder or lightning, Sunday’s poll will go ahead!” opposition leader Henrique Capriles had said in a Friday evening broadcast. “We Venezuelans are going out to vote for the future, the fatherland and the freedom of Venezuela.”
Voters were asked three questions: Do they reject the constitutional assembly, do they want the armed forces to defend the existing constitution and do they want elections before Maduro’s term in office ends in 2018. Some public employees, under government pressure not to participate in opposition events, are seeking creative ways to vote in the plebiscite without being noticed.
The vote will also include participation of the swelling ranks of Venezuelans who have moved abroad to escape the Opec nation’s increasingly dire economic panorama. The opposition expects a huge turnout by the end of voting. But there are many obstacles.
It will not have access to traditional electoral infrastructure for the hastily convened plebiscite, and the Elections Council – which the opposition calls a pawn of Maduro – is simultaneously holding a test-run for the July 30 vote.