Venezuela is a 'powder keg,' government will fall: opposition boss

August 11, 2016 2:55 PM EDT

Jesus Torrealba, secretary of Venezuela's coalition of opposition parties (MUD), speaks during an interview with Reuters in Caracas, Venezuela, August 10, 2016. Picture taken August 10, 2016. REUTERS/Marco Bello

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By Corina Pons and Efrain Otero

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela is on the verge of a "political earthquake" that will cause the government to collapse because the country's massive economic problems mean the current situation is not sustainable, opposition chief Jesus Torrealba said.

The opposition is working hard toward a recall referendum because many are angry with the government of President Nicolas Maduro.

Critics, including Torrealba, have accused the country's electoral council of stalling the referendum process to benefit the government.

Venezuela is plagued by the world's highest inflation, an economic recession and shortages of basic goods.

Timing on the referendum is important: If it takes place before Jan. 10, Venezuela could have an entirely new government; if it occurs after that date, the vice president would take over if Maduro loses.

"This country, from an economic and social perspective, is a powder keg," said Torrealba, the executive secretary of the often disparate opposition coalition, which encompasses some 30 political parties.

"We are going to see change not because the government allows it or the opposition promotes it but because the situation is not sustainable," he said in an interview on Wednesday.

Many in the country say they are hungry and not eating three meals a day. Lootings and food riots have become a daily occurrence.

Maduro blames the problems on an "economic war" waged against his government by the opposition and by Washington.

The opposition's next step toward holding a referendum is to collect 20 percent of the electorate's signatures, or at least roughly 4 million signatures. The electoral council says the opposition will "probably" be allowed to do that in late October.

That would give little time for the referendum to take place before Jan. 10.

Torrealba, a former television presenter, said he expects the opposition to collect far more signatures than the 20 percent minimum needed, something which he said will create unstoppable momentum for change.

"There's going to be a flood of people so big that it's going to create a political earthquake, a political tsunami," the 58-year-old Torrealba said.

"This will rearrange the (political) map of the country and oblige the government to accept a new reality ... through the referendum or whatever other mechanism," he added.

(Writing by Girish Gupta; Editing by Brian Ellsworth and Leslie Adler)

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