Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro pledged on Thursday to hold a referendum on a new constitution he has proposed to try and quell two months of anti-government unrest that has killed at least 62 people.
His comments came after criticism from opponents and some within his own government that his plan to create a new super-body, known as a constituent assembly, to rewrite the national charter was anti-democratic.
Chief state prosecutor Luisa Ortega had said creating the assembly without a plebiscite, as happened in 1999 when Maduro’s predecessor Hugo Chavez rewrote the constitution, threatened to “eliminate” democracy in Venezuela.
Maduro said on state television: “I shall propose it explicitly: the new constitution will go to a consultative referendum so it is the people who say whether they are in agreement or not with the new, strengthened constitution.”
There was no immediate reaction from Venezuela’s opposition, which now has majority support after years in the shadow of the ruling Socialist Party whose popularity has plunged during the OPEC nation’s brutal economic crisis.
Earlier on Thursday, Ortega took a stand against Maduro, launching a legal challenge against his bid to rewrite the constitution in response to the deadly political crisis.
Ortega, the highest-ranking public official to openly defy Maduro in the crisis, told reporters she had filed a case with the constitutional court on human rights grounds.
“It seems that participative and protagonistic democracy, which cost Venezuelans so much (to get), is being eliminated,” Ortega said.
Her move is a challenge to a court ruling a day earlier which held that Maduro could set up an elected constitutional reform body without holding a referendum to approve it.
Opponents of the socialist president say he aims to keep himself in power by stacking the planned “constituent assembly” with his allies.
Ortega has been a traditional ally of the socialist leadership, but her criticism of Maduro over the past two months of violent unrest have raised the prospect of divisions in the government camp.
Elected in 2013, Maduro is resisting opposition calls for early elections to remove him.
The opposition blames him for severe food and medicine shortages. He says the crisis is a US-backed conspiracy.
Talks between the government and opposition broke down in December with the sides accusing each other of bad faith.
Maduro’s Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez told a news conference on Thursday the government was inviting five Latin American and Caribbean countries to act as mediators in a new round of talks.
The opposition had previously ruled out a return to such negotiations.
Anti-government protests and looting have been raging across Venezuela for the past two months.
Riot police have fired tear gas and plastic bullets against protesters, who have hurled rocks and Molotov cocktails.
State Ombudsman Tarek William Saab at a news conference on Thursday called on the security forces to “fulfill their mission to protect human rights” in their response to the protests.
He said 65 people have been killed over two months of unrest. The state prosecution service puts the toll at 60.
In the latest fatality of two months of anti-government unrest, gunmen killed a judge involved in the sentencing of Venezuela’s best-known jailed political leader Leopoldo Lopez, authorities said on Thursday.
The judge, 37-year-old Nelson Moncada was shot and stripped of his belongings as he tried to get away from a street barricade on Wednesday night in Caracas’ El Paraiso district, the scene of regular clashes, the prosecutor’s office said.
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