CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela’s opposition alliance launched a campaign on Tuesday to oust socialist President Nicolas Maduro via street protests, a recall referendum or a constitutional amendment cutting his term.
“Change is coming and no one can stop it,” Jesus Torrealba, the head of the Democratic Unity (MUD) coalition, 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.
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 decided unanimously to activate “all mechanisms for change” 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.
Officials 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,” the Socialist Party’s powerful No. 2, Diosdado Cabello, said on Monday.
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.
That push, led by hard-liners, 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.
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.
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 as unconstitutional.
Political risk consultancy Eurasia predicted leading figures in the ruling “Chavismo” movement would rally around 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.”
Additional reporting by Corina Pons in Caracas and Anggy Polanco in San Cristobal; Editing by W Simon and Dan Grebler