Venezuela demos test of strength in political crisis

Alexander Martinez

Caracas (AFP) - Protesters seeking to drive Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro from office have vowed fresh street rallies on Wednesday and Thursday, a test of their strength in a tense political crisis.

A week after braving tear gas in their last march against Maduro and the state of emergency he has imposed, his opponents plan to demonstrate starting around 1400 GMT Wednesday.

Last week's disturbances raised fears of wider unrest in the South American country, where anti-government rallies in 2014 led to riots that killed 43 people.

The center-right opposition is pushing for a referendum on removing the socialist leader from office, blaming him for the country's economic crisis.

It accuses electoral authorities of dragging their feet in processing their petition for a referendum, which it wants to hold by the end of the year to get rid of Maduro.

"The only option the opposition now has to press for a referendum is peaceful demonstrations, along with international pressure," said political scientist Hector Briceno.

When opposition supporters tried to protest outside the offices of the electoral board last week, riot police barred their way and sent then running by firing tear gas.

In Wednesday's protest, the opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable coalition (MUD) has urged its supporters to march to the Supreme Court, which has banned demonstrations near the headquarters of the National Electoral Board (CNE).

The MUD's congressional leader Julio Borges said in a statement on the coalition's website that a further protest was also planned near the CNE's headquarters on Thursday.

- Drawn-out referendum process -

The opposition has handed the CNE the first of two petitions it is obliged to file in order to call a referendum and is waiting for the signatures to be counted.

It complains the authorities are dragging out the process to avoid a referendum this year.

If that happens, under constitutional rules Maduro could hand over power to his allies instead of new elections being held.

But senior opposition leader Henrique Capriles said a referendum "will be possible if citizens keep up the pressure."

There is a risk that "along the way there is a social explosion and, as we have repeated, a coup d'etat," Capriles said in a recent interview with the Spanish newspaper El Pais.

"The solution for Venezuela isn't a military uprising. That would be worse than what we have today."

- Military loyalties -

Maduro still appears to have the support of the armed forces, whose top brass has publicly backed him.

But Capriles told the BBC last week that lower-ranking soldiers who are suffering hardship like ordinary citizens may feel differently.

In a gesture of defiance to his opponents and the United States, Maduro flexed his muscles last weekend with a series of military exercises.

He claimed the referendum drive had "very little support."

For the first stage of the process to request a referendum, the opposition said it had collected 1.8 million signatures in favor of such a vote.

"This referendum aims to generate conditions to stir up the streets and justify a coup d'etat or a foreign intervention," Maduro told supporters last week.

A survey last month by pollster Venebarometro showed 68 percent of Venezuelans wanted Maduro's departure and new elections.

Venezuela has the biggest oil reserves in the world but the fall in crude prices has slashed its foreign revenues.

Citizens must queue for hours at shops for rations of basic foods and goods such as flour and toilet paper.

On Monday the government raised the state-controlled price of corn flour by 900 percent.

The government is also imposing daily electricity blackouts to save energy.