Venezuela president promises constitution referendum to calm crisis

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CARACAS: Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro has offered to hold a referendum on contested constitutional reforms in an apparent bid to calm critics in his own camp as he resists opposition efforts to remove him from office.

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.

On Friday, student protesters entered the headquarters of official television channel VTV, where they lobbed accusations against Communications Minister Ernesto Villegas.

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.

“In light of what is happening in this country, I would like to push back this Constituent Assembly, ask the National Electoral Council to advance regional elections and continue to press for dialogue,” Ortega told Union Radio.

Maduro’s announcement, at a cabinet meeting, came just hours after Ortega filed a legal challenge against the plan. The presidents called opponents of the move “traitors”.

Maduro aims to set up an elected constitutional reform body called a constituent assembly. His opponents say he will fill it with his allies.

Analysts were sceptical about Maduro’s referendum announcement, saying that constitutionally he was not authorised to call such a vote.

“It is a political ploy,” said analyst Luis Vicente Leon, president of polling firm Datanalisis.

“It breaks the main criticism” levelled at Maduro by Ortega and other critics, “to lower the tension and calm the internal demons” in the government camp, Leon said.

Ortega has been a traditional ally of the socialist leadership since the time of Maduro’s late predecessor Hugo Chavez.

Now, she calls the court’s ruling in favour of allowing the reforms to move forward without a popular vote a “setback” in human rights and participatory democracy.

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 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 in the oil-rich nation.

He says the crisis is a US-backed conspiracy.

State prosecutors say 63 people have been killed in two months of unrest, which have seen protesters clash daily with riot police.