Caracas/San Cristobal: Venezuela`s opposition held an unofficial referendum on Sunday to increase pressure on President Nicolas Maduro as he seeks to create a legislative superbody that his adversaries call the consolidation of a dictatorship.
The symbolic poll, which also asked voters if they want early elections, is intended to further dent Maduro`s legitimacy amid a crippling economic crisis and months of anti-government protests that have led to around 100 deaths.
The opposition has cast the vote, which took place at some 2,000 centers around the country, as an act of civil disobedience to be followed by "zero hour," a possible reference to a national strike or other escalated actions against Maduro.
Queues formed early at improvised polling stations at theaters and roundabouts in the oil-rich nation of 30 million as Venezuelans furious over food shortages and rampant inflation sought to make their voices heard. But the atmosphere was festive under the Caribbean sun, with people blasting music, honking from their cars and waving flags.
"We want this government of Nicolas (Maduro) out. We`re tired of not seeing solutions, there are people dying of hunger," said Mercedes Guerrero de Ramirez, an 80-year-old former hospital worker, who was first in line at the polling station at 5:30 a.m. in the border city of San Cristobal.
But the vote does not appear to augur a short-term change of government or a solution to the country`s political stalemate.
Maduro, 54, said the plebiscite is illegal and meaningless. Instead, the leftist leader is campaigning for an official July 30 vote for the new assembly, which will be able to rewrite the constitution and dissolve state institutions.
The two elections this month are a show of force from each side. Both the government and opposition are effectively boycotting the other, hoping to legitimize themselves in the polarized environment.
"The constituent assembly is bullshit. Maduro wants more power, more money, and to drive us crazy," said garage employee Maolis Coronado, 26, after voting in a poor district of Caracas, adding that she was only eating cheap starches and had put off having a child because of the economic crisis.
Voters on Sunday are being asked if they reject the constitutional assembly, if they want the armed forces to defend the existing constitution, and if they want elections before Maduro`s term in office ends in 2018.
Some public employees, under government pressure not to participate in opposition events, are seeking creative ways to vote in the plebiscite without being noticed.
The vote also includes participation by swelling ranks of Venezuelans who have moved abroad to escape the OPEC nation`s increasingly dire economy. Venezuelans were casting ballots from Madrid to Miami.
The opposition is hoping millions turn out and promises results will be available by Sunday evening.
But they face major obstacles.
They do not have access to traditional electoral infrastructure for the hastily convened plebiscite, and the elections council - which the opposition calls a pawn of Maduro - is simultaneously holding a test-run for the July 30 vote.
Also, state telecommunications regulator Conatel has ordered radio and TV stations not to use the word "plebiscite" on air and has told them to pull opposition ads for the vote, according to Venezuela`s main organization of media workers.