Venezuela’s opposition has concluded a “popular consultation” vote to repudiate President Nicolas Maduro’s government days after boycotting a congressional election they considered fraudulent.
The consultation started virtually on Monday and ended with in-person participation on Saturday.
With 87 percent of responses reviewed, the opposition said just under 6.5 million people participated. Of those, over three million voted in person, and 2.4 million online. Close to 845,000 Venezuelans abroad took part, the opposition reported.
The turnout claim could not be verified independently.
The consultation asked Venezuelans if they want a change of government and whether they reject the results of the election, which saw the Maduro-led political alliance win more than 90 percent of the seats in the legislature. Congress was the last state institution not in the hands of the governing Socialist Party.
The Maduro government said 5.2 million Venezuelans or about 31 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots in the congressional vote.
Opposition leader Juan Guaido, the speaker of the outgoing National Assembly, and other top opposition parties had called on people to boycott that vote.
They alleged that the process was rigged to favour Maduro, a claim echoed by Western countries that have backed Guaido.
Shortly before the results of Saturday’s informal vote was announced, Guaido tweeted, “Hope has been mobilized in Venezuela.
“We must underscore a heroic people who mobilized throughout the country and the world in defense of their rights.”
Maduro has minimised the importance of the consultation, calling Guaido a “charlatan” and a “puppet” of the United States.
“No one could believe that this internet consultation has legal or constitutional value – only informational value,” Maduro said on Thursday.
Blanca Marmol, a former supreme court magistrate who helped organise the opposition’s popular consultation, told a news conference, “This is, I want to emphasise, the last resource we have in the Constitution.”
Organisers on Saturday reported incidents in 11 of Venezuela’s 24 states, with police and governing party supporters removing some opposition sites for the informal vote.
Mirla De Lorenzo, a 50-year-old bank employee who voted in the popular consultation in her Caracas neighbourhood, said she was tired of the situation “that’s brought us nothing but poverty”.
She told The Associated Press news agency that her daughter moved to Spain and her sister migrated to Chile, among relatives who have fled the country.
“You can’t compete with deceitful people, with people who use force, with people who have weapons,” she said. “There is no way.”
Marco Blanco, a 54-year-old taxi driver in the western Caracas neighborhood of Catia, said he was unaware of the vote.
“I heard something about a query, I don’t know what it is for,” he said. “I have listened, but very vague. Almost nothing.”
Risa Grais-Targow, a Venezuela analyst for the Eurasia Group, said that in addition to seeking to unite Venezuelans who do not like Maduro, the symbolic referendum was meant to send a message to international supporters.
“They’ve organised a process for their foreign partners from the US to the European Union and regional governments,” Grais-Targow told AP. “So they can continue to back him even when he’s no longer in control of the National Assembly.”
The US ambassador for Venezuela, James Story, praised the opposition’s survey from Colombia’s capital, where he has worked since the US and Venezuela broke diplomatic relations and the US closed its embassy in Caracas.
“We’re proud to see the people of Venezuela in the street voting for their right to democracy, justice, liberty,” Story tweeted. “Their voices have been heard. Democracy must return to Venezuela.”
Maduro’s governing party, meanwhile, staged a celebration in the historic center of Caracas on Saturday to mark the victories of their National Assembly candidates, including Maduro’s wife and son. Politicians gave speeches condemning the domestic opposition and US policy interference in Venezuela. Salsa music played and people danced.
A political talk show on state television Saturday night featured a segment mocking the referendum by showing mobile phone videos said to have been recorded by people who drove by survey centres in cities across the nation.
“There’s nobody, absolutely nobody,” one unidentified driver says. “Look, there’s four people standing around talking nonsense.”