CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) - Chanting â€śfreedom!â€ť and waving their countryâ€™s tri-color flag, thousands of Venezuelans lined up across the county on Sunday to vote in a symbolic rejection of President Nicolas Maduroâ€™s plan to rewrite the constitution, a proposal thatâ€™s escalating tensions in a nation stricken by widespread shortages and more than 100 days of anti-government protests.
In what appeared to be smaller numbers in many parts of the capital, government supporters went to polling stations in a rehearsal for a July 30 vote to elect members of the assembly that will retool Venezuelaâ€™s 1999 constitution.
The opposition says the vote has been structured to pack the constitutional assembly with government supporters and allow Maduro to eliminate the few remaining checks on his power, creating a Cuba-style system dominated by his socialist party.
The success of the oppositionâ€™s symbolic referendum will be measured by how many millions participate. Democratic Unity, a coalition of some 20 opposition parties, has printed 14 million ballots for voters inside and outside the country of 31 million people. Few expect turnout that high but analysts say participation by more than 8 million people would significantly hike pressure on the government.
Participation appeared to be high, with thousands of people lining up at tables in churches and parks across the capital.
â€śSince we opened at 7 a.m. the line hasnâ€™t let up,â€ť said Pedro Garcia, organizer of a voting station filled with hundreds of people in the south Caracas neighborhood of El Valle, a stronghold of government support that has been weakening in recent years.
Juan Madriz, a 45-year-old insurance company employee, said he didnâ€™t object to rewriting the constitution per se, but rejected Maduroâ€™s decision to do so without putting that decision to a vote, as his predecessor Hugo Chavez did.
â€śIf theyâ€™re forcing us, it isnâ€™t democracy,â€ť Madriz said.
Isabel Santander, a 67-year-old retired auditor, said she was voting against the constitutional assembly as a protest against the countryâ€™s economic collapse.
â€śI signed because thereâ€™s no medicine, no food, no security,â€ť she said. â€śThereâ€™s no separation of powers, no freedom of expression.â€ť
Maduro and the military dominate most state institutions but the opposition controls the congress and holds three of 23 governorships.