Deaths reported in Venezuela as voters clash with police

New constitutional assembly deemed by critics to mark end of Venezuelan democracy

Venezuela’s president  Nicolás Maduro: told state television the assembly marks “a new era of combat”. Photograph: Marco Bello/Reuters

Venezuela’s president Nicolás Maduro: told state television the assembly marks “a new era of combat”. Photograph: Marco Bello/Reuters

 

Police and protesters clashed in Venezuela on Sunday as voting took place for a controversial new constitutional assembly which critics fear will formally mark the end of the country’s democracy.

The first vote was cast by embattled president Nicolás Maduro who told state television the assembly marks “a new era of combat” and taunted “the emperor Donald Trump” who he claimed had wanted to derail the referendum.

The new body will have wide-ranging powers to rewrite the country’s constitution which Mr Maduro’s own populist Chavista movement drafted in 1999 under the auspices of his deceased predecessor and mentor Hugo Chávez.

Sunday’s voting took place against a backdrop of a deepening economic collapse and months of street protests against the government that have left over 100 people dead. One of Venezuela’s few remaining independent media organisations El Nacional reported 13 people had by killed in the 24 hours up to Sunday afternoon.

Venezuela’s neighbours are threatening to declare they no longer consider the country a democracy as a result of the constitutional assembly, which opinion polls show is rejected by over two-thirds of Venezuelans.

US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said the US would not accept an “illegitimate government” in Caracas.

She said on Twitter: “Maduro’s sham election is another step toward dictatorship. We won’t accept an illegit govt. The Venezuelan ppl & democracy will prevail.”

Rigged system

Of the 545 members in the new body, 346 will be elected geographically, with each municipality having one representative with state capitals getting two each, regardless of population. Critics say this electoral system is designed to rig the result in the government’s favour as it privileges sparsely populated rural regions over urban areas that have turned sharply against the president since his narrow election victory in 2013.

A further 173 members will be chosen in a complex poll of sectorial interests that range from business organisations to indigenous communities that is also expected to heavily favour groups with deep ties to Chavismo.

The opposition alliance called for a boycott of the election, fearing its ulterior goal is to allow Chavismo to dissolve the national assembly it seized control of in a crushing mid-term election victory in 2015. Last year, the assembly tried to activate the current constitution’s provision that allows for a recall referendum on the president’s mandate. But that was blocked by the Chavista-dominated supreme court setting the stage for the current political stand-off.

Forced voting

With the opposition calling for a boycott, there were reports on social media on Sunday of public sector workers receiving phone calls ordering them to voting stations.

To have any chance of presenting the vote as legitimate to its neighbours in the region, the Maduro administration needs to beat the 7.6 million turnout in a symbolic opposition-organised referendum two weeks ago to protest its efforts to rewrite the constitution.

But it is not clear if the country’s electoral authorities will report the number of voters who took part on Sunday or of votes cast, with 62 per cent of the country’s 20 million voters able to vote in both the geographical and sectorial parts of the election.