Venezuelan protests seek Maduro's ouster

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Caracas (AFP)

Venezuela's opposition has called a national day of protest for Saturday, the opening salvo in its new strategy to oust President Nicolas Maduro.

After winning by a landslide in legislative elections only to see its authority hamstrung by the courts, the opposition is counting on the power of the street to force the deeply unpopular Maduro to listen to calls for change.

Seventeen years into the socialist "revolution" launched by the president's late mentor Hugo Chavez, a punishing economic crisis has stoked outrage in the once-booming oil giant, where chronic shortages of basic goods, long lines and soaring prices have become the norm.

After weeks debating its plan of attack, the fractious opposition coalition, the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), announced it would use not one but all options available to oust Maduro, including a recall referendum and a constitutional amendment reducing the presidential term.

But with an unfriendly Supreme Court likely to stand in its way, it is placing special emphasis on its call for protests -- a potentially explosive path amid the tensions tearing at Venezuela, after anti-government demonstrations in 2014 left 43 people dead.

Maduro will lead a rally of his own Saturday morning in Caracas, at the same time as the opposition demos.

Officially, his is a protest against the United States' decision to renew sanctions on several top Venezuelan officials, first imposed a year ago over a government crack-down on opposition leaders.

But beneath the anti-American rhetoric he and Chavez have long relied upon to whip up their leftist supporters, the rally is a clear attempt to counter the opposition's protests.

The two demonstrations will be held in different parts of the capital, but the security situation is nevertheless tense given the violence of 2014.

"We're not afraid of the game. It's clear that it's the people who decide," said opposition lawmaker Freddy Guevara, calling to oust Maduro by year's end.

"The best exit (from the crisis) would be for him to allow a political solution, and the fastest way would be for him to agree to resign," he said.

Maduro, however, shows no willingness to quit without a fight.

The protests come against the backdrop of a deep economic morass exacerbated by the crash in the price of oil, which long funded Chavez and Maduro's lavish social spending.

Despite holding the world's largest crude reserves, Venezuela's economy contracted 5.7 percent last year, its second year of recession.

Political analysts meanwhile say all the constitutional options to force Maduro from power face likely rejection by the Supreme Court or the National Electoral Council -- both of which the opposition accuses the president of packing with allies.