[CARACAS] Venezuela's opposition called on its supporters to take to the streets again Wednesday as it steps up efforts to oust President Nicolas Maduro, who has accused them of attempting a coup.
Two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles called for fresh demonstrations to pressure Venezuela's electoral board, or CNE, to process a petition to activate a recall referendum. The opposition accuses the government of stalling the process to avoid early elections.
Thousands attempted to march on the CNE in central Caracas last week, but were turned back with teargas and pepper spray by security forces. Later in the week, Mr Maduro announced a "state of exception," which he said he needed to defend Venezuela from domestic and external threats.
Speaking in a news conference Tuesday, the embattled president said that while demonstrations were allowed under the decree, calls for violence and intimidation won't bring about a referendum.
"The government does not want change, it wants violence to continue," Mr Capriles countered on Tuesday.
Since taking the reigns from his predecessor and mentor, Hugo Chavez, Mr Maduro has seen his approval rating dip below 30 per cent as widespread shortages of consumer staples and triple-digit inflation cut into Venezuelans' wallets.
His term isn't due to end until 2019. The government has said repeatedly that a referendum won't happen this year.
Discontent over a sinking economy and rampant crime sparked months of anti-government demonstrations that left dozens dead and hundreds more injured two years ago.
And while country's crisis has only continued to spiral since 2014, the opposition's calls to the street have so far been met with tepid response.
Despite sparse crowds at recent rallies, Mr Capriles sought to rally his supporters on Tuesday. He insisted Venezuelans must ignore Mr Maduro's latest decree and pleaded with the military not to impede the coming march.
"It's the moment of truth for the Venezuelan armed forces," he said.
After winning a landslide victory in last year's congressional elections, the opposition has seen most of its initiatives stonewalled by the Supreme Court, and its legislative majority largely ignored. Sidelined as the president rules by decree, Mr Maduro said he thought congress' days were numbered.
"The National Assembly has lost it's political relevance," he said "It's a question of time before it disappears."
He also blamed the international financial community for the country's ills for not providing lending and pushing up the nation's borrowing costs, even as the nation sacrifices imports to meet its debt obligations.
China, Venezuela's main creditor, has agreed to ease financing terms on bilateral loans, its Foreign Ministry spokesman said Tuesday.
The president declined to comment when asked about specifics on economic growth, inflation and oil production levels.