Venezuela opposition leader fears vote will be scrapped

Venezuelan opposition leader Henrique Capriles says he fears President Nicolas Maduro`s crisis-hit government, fearing a humiliating loss, will cancel key Legislative Elections later this year.

AFP| Updated: Mar 04, 2015, 22:55 PM IST

Caracas: Venezuelan opposition leader Henrique Capriles says he fears President Nicolas Maduro`s crisis-hit government, fearing a humiliating loss, will cancel key Legislative Elections later this year.

With Venezuela`s economy in recession, its oil revenues plunging and consumers facing chronic shortages of basic goods, Maduro`s approval rating has sunk to a low of around 20 percent -- the worst crisis yet for the political movement founded by his late mentor, leftist firebrand Hugo Chavez.

That has fed optimism among the divided opposition that it can win control of the National Assembly at elections due this year, for which a date has not yet been set.

But Capriles -- who narrowly lost the 2013 presidential vote to Maduro after Chavez`s death -- said the government would rather provoke the opposition into violence than face it at the polls.

"The government had never had such a large deficit (in the polls) heading into an election. Now it does. How does it change that? It rigs the game," he told AFP in an interview Tuesday.

"Is it capable of suspending (the election)? I think they`re capable of anything," he said.

A year after bloody street protests erupted across Venezuela, the government wants the opposition to "fall into the trap of violence," said Capriles, the governor of the wealthy northern state of Miranda.

"They want to instil fear in people," he said. Suspending the elections "is a bomb that the government could make explode."

Capriles, a 42-year-old lawyer, spoke optimistically of the opposition`s chances, saying this could be the year they loosen a 16-year-long grip that "Chavistas" have on the South American oil giant.

If the opposition takes control of the National Assembly, it could call a referendum next year to remove Maduro from power.

"There`s no reason to lose. It would be stupid, it would be self-destructive," Capriles said, sporting jeans and a baseball cap in the colours of the Venezuelan flag.But although Venezuelans are fed up with long lines, soaring prices and shortages of products ranging from medicine to toilet paper, the opposition is weakened by its own divisions.

A short walk away from the public school where Capriles was interviewed sits the Ramo Verde prison, where two other, more hardline opposition leaders are in jail: protest leader Leopoldo Lopez and Caracas mayor Antonio Ledezma.

Together with expelled lawmaker Maria Corina Machado, they founded a grassroots opposition movement aimed at ousting Maduro through street protests, called "La Salida" (which translates as both "The Solution" and "The Exit").

The movement mobilised hundreds of thousands of protesters to take to the streets from January to May last year.

The protests exploded into violence as the government responded with counter-demonstrations and a police crack-down, leaving 43 people dead, hundreds wounded and thousands arrested.

Lopez was jailed in February 2014 on charges of inciting the violence. Ledezma was jailed last month on charges of conspiring to overthrow the government. Machado was expelled from the National Assembly in March 2014 and also faces charges of conspiring against the government.

Capriles, who is seen as more moderate than the "La Salida" leaders, has distanced himself from them on certain issues, including their publication last month of a charter calling on Venezuelans to adopt a "National Transitional Accord" to peacefully change the government.

The opposition, which has fought the last three elections under a fragile coalition called the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), will hold primary elections in May to choose candidates for this year`s elections.

Maduro`s United Socialist Party of Venezuela will hold its own primaries in June.

Capriles called for unity as the process ramps up.

"You can`t talk about a transition until you win at the polls," he said.

"No matter what actions we take, if they`re not taken in a context of unity, they`re not going to go any further than what we`re seeing now."