By Andrew Cawthorne
CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro said on Sunday he expected delayed state polls to be held this year, although opponents have demanded a broader general election to replace him in protests that have sparked 29 deaths.
The postponed vote for governors of Venezuela’s 23 states – originally slated for 2016 – is one of a litany of opposition grievances against Maduro whom foes accuse of becoming a dictator and wrecking the economy.
During his weekly TV program, “Sundays With Maduro,” the 54-year-old socialist leader said gubernatorial elections would happen later this year although the opposition’s real agenda was to topple him with a U.S.-backed coup.
“I am anxious for an electoral process to be called,” he told supporters on the live show, saying the election board, or CNE, first had to finish legalizing political parties.
“Then the CNE will fix the pending governor elections, for this year. … Venezuela’s problem is not that there won’t be elections this year. Venezuela’s problem is that an empire in extremists’ hands wants to take our oil and carry out a coup.”
The government party controls 20 states, but polls indicate the opposition would now win a majority of the states, given voter anger over the OPEC nation’s brutal recession.
The next presidential election is due for late 2018, but the opposition wants that brought forward to this year and bundled with legislative, state and mayoral elections.
In a special program to celebrate the construction of 1.6 million housing units under a six-year state project begun by his predecessor, Hugo Chavez, the president lambasted his opponents for violence occurring around protests.
The 29 fatalities include supporters of both sides and a National Guard sergeant, most killed by bullets.
Hundreds have also been injured, and property damaged.
Opposition leaders say security forces have unleashed excessive force in the near-daily clashes of the past month, while Maduro says snipers have been shooting his supporters.
“They’ve passed all limits, attacking a maternity hospital, burning ambulances, burning buses with passengers inside, attacking Housing Mission offices, attacking schools, libraries, Mercales (state food stores),” he said.
“Are these protests? No, they are fascism.”
The president also criticized foreign media, saying they ignored social achievements such as Venezuela’s 6.6 percent unemployment rate or the Housing Mission, to focus obsessively on the unrest.
“They are never going to cover housing unit No. 1,600,000, but they always know the day before what the opposition are going to do, so they can be there with their cameras,” he said of the media. “They are seeking an imperialist intervention.”
Venezuela’s foreign and information ministers met with foreign correspondents on Saturday to protest coverage of the death of a student last week during street clashes.
Officials of the opposition-controlled Chacao district of Caracas, and protest leaders said 20-year-old Juan Pernalete was hit by a tear gas cannister.
The ministers suggested he was assassinated from within opposition ranks to discredit Maduro. They showed a video of his final moments being carried by two youths, a photo of his wounded torso and details of a pistol they suspect was used.
The state prosecutor’s office is investigating the case.
In his lengthy Sunday program, the Venezuelan president also announced a 60 percent increase in the minimum salary to 60,000 bolivars to take effect from Labor Day on Monday.
With increased food tickets worth 135,000 bolivars, workers would receive 200,000 monthly, he said. That amount is worth about $50 at the black market rate for dollars.
The opposition and government are both planning massive marches across the country on Monday, with many Venezuelans fearing further violence.
As well as general elections, the opposition wants the release of jailed activists, permission for foreign humanitarian aid to help offset shortages of food and medicine, and autonomy for the opposition-controlled National Assembly.
(Editing by Peter Cooney)