Photographer: Carlos Becerra/Bloomberg

Venezuelan Opposition’s Anti-Maduro March Banks on Big Turnout

  • Protest set to pressure authorites to hold recall referendum
  • Maduro has so far rejected chance of holding recall this year

Venezuela’s political opposition, after weeks of a cross-country campaign to rally backers, will attempt to seize the streets of the capital on Thursday with its biggest march in years in pursuit of a referendum to oust President Nicolas Maduro -- and Maduro is ready for them.

Led by two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, the opposition has called on its supporters to amass in the capital for the “the great taking of Caracas,” a national protest aimed at pressuring electoral authorities to hold a recall referendum by year’s end.

Henrique Capriles

Photographer: Carlos Becerra/Bloomberg

The stakes are high. Although polls suggest Maduro is wildly unpopular, a recall vote will only work now, before the end of the first half of Maduro’s six-year term. Losing such a vote in 2017 would result only in the vice president taking over, untouched, for the remaining years. That’s why a strong showing is crucial.

“The opposition is measuring its organizational power,” said Dimitris Pantoulas, a Caracas-based political consultant. “It’s not that they are taking the temperature of the streets, it’s that they are taking the temperature of themselves.”

Racked by triple-digit inflation and empty store shelves, Venezuelans voted in droves for sweeping change in last year’s congressional elections, gaining control of the legislature and prompting the opposition coalition -- the Democratic Unity Roundtable -- to promise an end to almost two decades of socialist rule.

The Brush-Off

Instead, they quickly found their majority narrowed and their initiatives blocked by the courts, and Maduro has brushed off any chance of a vote before year’s end.

“Revoking Maduro is putting an end to hunger,” Capriles wrote on Twitter in the lead-up to the march. “We’re going to mobilize September 1 so he hears us.”

Capriles and his allies have already staged numerous demonstrations demanding the vote. Those calls to the street, however, have so far been a far cry from the anti-government protests that rocked Venezuela two years ago. The crowds have been sparse, and routinely met with a heavy police presence.

Government’s Punishment

A spokesperson from Venezuela’s Information Ministry declined to comment directly on the opposition’s protest, but the government is coordinating its own tactics in response. Maduro has planned a simultaneous counter-demonstration in central Caracas, calling on his supporters Tuesday to "defend the revolution," and ordered all television and radio stations this week to broadcast “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” a polarizing documentary about the 2002 coup that briefly removed former President Hugo Chavez from power after widespread opposition marches.

Nicolas Maduro

Photographer: Carlos Becerra/Bloomberg

The government has made multiple high-profile arrests already this week, accusing activists and politicians of attempting to stoke violence at the march, and the ruling socialists have recently sworn to fire high-ranking public-sector workers who have signed the opposition’s recall petition.

“We’re trapping them all,” Maduro said earlier this week. “You have to act before, during and after the announced dates against these coup-mongers.” Whatever those acts are, they might be under the observation of Spain’s former prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. The Spanish newspaper El Mundo reported Tuesday that Zapatero, who had been involved in trying to organize talks between the two sides last month, had shown up by surprise ahead of the march.

Weary Electorate

Infuriated by what they consider to be unfettered institutional and economic control by the government, and accusing authorities of intentionally dragging their feet, the opposition march reflects the efforts by Maduro’s foes to double down on their attempt to force a referendum. The president likens the effort to a “coup,” blaming his country’s hardships not on poor policy but foul play by his political opponents who seek to disrupt his rule.

With an already weary electorate, some are concerned Capriles and his allies may wind up overplaying their hand. While the opposition may have public sentiment on its side, any immediate change remains unlikely.

Yet analysts say the country’s spiraling economic woes, which have sparked a rash of looting in recent months, could provide new incentive to heed the opposition’s call. A strong turnout Thursday could provide them with new momentum, more demonstrations and could spark strikes all aimed at securing Maduro’s resignation, says Carlos Romero, a political scientist at the Central University of Venezuela.

“The opposition has a card up its sleeve,” Romero said. “But everything depends on attendance.”

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