Caracas: Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro has agreed to a referendum on contested constitutional reforms in an apparent concession to critics in his own camp as he resists opposition efforts to fire him.
The surprise announcement late on Thursday followed two months of deadly unrest during anti-government protests and signs of division in the socialist leader’s side. The opposition says his constitutional reform plan is a bid to cling to power — and key allies such as Attorney General Luisa Ortega have broken ranks with him, arguing it is undemocratic.
Maduro said at a cabinet meeting late on Thursday that “the new constitution will be put to a referendum so that the people can say whether they agree or not.” Maduro aims to set up an elected constitutional reform body called a “constituent assembly.” His opponents say he will fill it with his allies.
Ortega had filed a legal challenge against the plan earlier on Thursday. Maduro said those who opposed his plan were “traitors.”
Ortega has been a traditional ally of the socialist leadership since the time of Maduro’s late predecessor Hugo Chavez.
Her challenge at the constitutional court does not have legal force to stop Maduro’s plan, but “shows the divisions and disagreements within Chavismo,” said political analyst Luis Vicente Leon.
Elected in 2013, Maduro is resisting opposition calls for early elections to remove him. The opposition blames him for severe food and medicine shortages. He says the crisis is a US-backed conspiracy.
State prosecutors say 61 people have been killed in two months of unrest, which have seen protesters clash daily with riot police.
Meanwhile, His comments came after criticism from opponents and some within his own government that his plan to create a new super-body, known as a constituent assembly, to rewrite the national charter was anti-democratic.
Chief state prosecutor Luisa Ortega had said creating the assembly without a plebiscite, as happened in 1999 when Maduro’s predecessor Hugo Chavez rewrote the constitution, threatened to “eliminate” democracy in Venezuela.
Maduro said on state television: “I shall propose it explicitly: the new constitution will go to a consultative referendum so it is the people who say whether they are in agreement or not with the new, strengthened constitution.”
There was no immediate reaction from Venezuela’s opposition, which now has majority support after years in the shadow of the ruling Socialist Party whose popularity has plunged during the Opec nation’s brutal economic crisis.
Foes are likely to try and turn any referendum into a vote on Maduro himself. They have been calling for the next presidential election, slated for late 2018, to be brought forward.
The government has said elections for the new constituent assembly will be held in late July, although opposition leaders say the process is skewed to ensure a pro-Maduro majority.
There was no word on when the plebiscite would be held.
Earlier, authorities announced that gunmen had killed a judge involved in the sentencing of Venezuela’s best-known jailed political leader, Leopoldo Lopez.
The judge, 37-year-old Nelson Moncada, was shot and stripped of his belongings as he tried to get away from a street barricade on Wednesday night in Caracas’ El Paraiso district, the scene of regular clashes, the prosecutor’s office said.
This week has seen widespread violence around the Venezuelan capital, with security forces repeatedly breaking up marches by opposition supporters towards government offices downtown, and skirmishes continuing into the night.
Protesters frequently block roads with trash and burning tires, sometimes asking passers-by for contributions towards a self-styled “Resistance” movement against Maduro.
El Paraiso has seen nightly clashes between demonstrators, pro-government gangs and National Guard soldiers.
The government said Moncada was one of the judges who ratified Lopez’s 14-year jail sentence, and suggested that might have been the motive for his killing.
“We cannot exclude the possibility this was done by hitmen hired by right-wing terrorists to keep creating and spreading terror,” Interior Minister Nestor Reverol said, referring to Venezuela’s opposition.
Victims from two months of unrest have included supporters on both sides, bystanders and members of the security forces.
The latest death came in Lara state, where 46-year-old Maria Rodriguez was shot during a demonstration on Thursday, the state prosecutor’s office said, without giving more details. Maduro, 54, calls his opponents coup-mongers seeking his violent overthrow with US support akin to the short-lived ouster of his predecessor Hugo Chavez in 2002.
Ortega, the chief prosecutor, launched a blistering attack on Maduro from the steps of the pro-government Supreme Court, criticising its ruling this week endorsing the assembly plan.
“It seems that participative and protagonistic democracy, which cost Venezuelans so much (to get), is being eliminated,” said Ortega, who broke with Maduro a few weeks ago.
“This sentence is a backward step for human rights,” she added, before reading extracts from a past Chavez speech. — AFP