More than 7 million people vote in plebiscite in Venezuela against Maduro; Opposition plots "zero hour" to escalate protests and block constituent assembly

Nearly 7.2 million Venezuelans participated in an informal plebiscite organized on Sunday by the opposition against leftist President Nicolas Maduro's government, according to academics monitoring the vote.

That was not far off the total opposition vote of 7.7 million votes in Venezuela's December 2015 parliamentary elections and was hailed by Maduro's foes as a resounding expression of popular discontent against him. 

Energized by the massive anti-Maduro vote, Venezuela's opposition mulled on Sunday how to escalate protests and block a new congress it fears may enshrine Socialist Party hegemony. 

After months of street rallies 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 Maduro's plan to create a controversial new legislative super-body called a Constituent Assembly in a July 30 vote. 

Opposition tactics could include lengthy road blockades and sit-ins, a national strike, or possibly even a march on the Miraflores presidential palace. 

"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 during Monday. 

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. 

"The result is a remarkable show of force for Venezuela's opposition," New York-based Torino Capital said in a research note, noting the vote was only called and organized two weeks previously and participation meant openly defying the government. "The results seem to confirm that the opposition would easily defeat the government in any election." 

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.