By Andrew Cawthorne
CARACAS (Reuters) - Energized by a massive vote against President Nicolas Maduro in an unofficial plebiscite, Venezuela's opposition mulled on Monday how to escalate protests and block a new congress it fears may enshrine Socialist Party hegemony.
After months of demonstrations that have led to nearly 100 deaths, the Democratic Unity coalition brought millions onto the streets on Sunday for an informal referendum intended to de-legitimize a leader they call a dictator.
Now, opposition leaders are promising "Zero Hour" in Venezuela to demand a general election and stop the leftist Maduro's plan to create a controversial new legislative super-body called a Constituent Assembly in a July 30 vote.
Opposition tactics may include lengthy road blockades and sit-ins, a national strike, or possibly even a march on the Miraflores presidential palace, similar to events before a short-lived coup against Maduro's predecessor Hugo Chavez in 2002.
"Today, Venezuela stood up with dignity to say freedom does not go backwards, democracy is not negotiated," Julio Borges, who leads the opposition-controlled legislature, said shortly after midnight when the referendum results were announced.
"We don't want a fraudulent Constituent Assembly imposed on us. We don't want to be Cuba. We don't want to be a country without freedom," he added, promising further announcements on opposition strategy on Monday.
Maduro, whose term is due to end in early 2019, dismissed Sunday's event as an internal exercise by the opposition with no bearing on his government.
"Don't go crazy, calm down," he said on Sunday in a message to the opposition, vowing his Constituent Assembly would bring peace to the volatile nation of 30 million people.
Maduro, 54, a former bus driver and long-serving foreign minister for Chavez, narrowly won election in 2013 but has seen his ratings plunge to just over 20 percent during a brutal economic crisis in the South American OPEC member.
Though polls show the opposition has majority support and his foes repeatedly call for a free and fair election as their top demand, Maduro insists they are U.S. pawns intent on sabotaging the economy and bringing him down through violence.
Most Venezuelans oppose the Constituent Assembly, which will have power to rewrite the constitution and annul the current opposition-led legislature, but Maduro is pressing on anyway for the vote in two weeks' time.
In three questions at Sunday's event, opposition supporters voted overwhelmingly - by 98 percent - to reject the proposed new assembly, urge the military to defend the existing constitution, and support elections before Maduro's term ends, according to academics monitoring the vote for the opposition.
Sunday's nearly 7.2 million participation compared with 7.7 million opposition votes in the 2015 legislative elections that it won by a landslide and 7.3 million votes for the opposition in a 2013 presidential poll narrowly won by Maduro.
SHOW OF FORCE
Opposition organizers pointed out Sunday's turnout follows just two weeks of organization, with voting at just 2,000 polling stations, compared to 14,000 at the 2015 vote.
"The result is a remarkable show of force for Venezuela's opposition," New York-based Torino Capital said, noting participation also meant openly defying the government.
"We can assume that the number of people voting was less than that which would turn out to vote in a regular election .. The results seem to confirm that the opposition would easily defeat the government in any election."
State media largely ignored the event, concentrating instead on a trial run on Sunday for the July 30 vote, while Maduro allies accused the opposition of inflating vote numbers.
The political turmoil has taken a heavy toll on Venezuela: 95 deaths in unrest since April, thousands of injuries, hundreds of arrests, and further damage to an economy already in its fourth year of decline.
The latest fatality came on Sunday when gunmen shot a 61-year-old woman in a crowd of opposition voters in the poor Caracas neighborhood of Catia. Hundreds of people were besieged in a church for hours during the melee, a witness said.
Various former Latin American heads of state attended Sunday's vote as observers in support of the opposition.
The Venezuelan government declared ex-Mexico president Vicente Fox "persona non grata" for "insulting" Venezuelans and "abusing hospitality."
"Mr. Fox came to Venezuela paid to promote violence and intervention by foreign powers," tweeted a furious Venezuelan Foreign Minister Samuel Moncada after the Mexican had flown out. "He will never be able to return to Venezuela."
(Additional reporting by Diego Ore, Alexandra Ulmer and Andreina Aponte in Caracas, Francisco Aguilar in Barinas; Editing by Bernadette Baum)