Venezuela’s Maduro eyes ‘big victory’ in protest-hit vote that could give socialist leader dictator powers
Venezuela, which is set to hold a controversial vote Sunday on a body to rewrite the constitution, has seen four months of protests against President Nicolas Maduro during which more than 110 people have died
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro predicted a “big victory” in a contentious vote Sunday for a new law-making body that is dogged by deadly protests and opposition claims he’s moving to outright dictatorship.
Authorities said late Saturday that virtually all was ready for the election of the 545-member Constituent Council that will have power to dissolve the legislature as it takes on the task of rewriting the constitution.
However, electoral council chief Tibisay Lucena acknowledged that “we have had attacks and (voting) machines burned” in parts of the country, confirming images circulating on Twitter.
International alarm has risen over the deepening crisis in the impoverished yet oil-rich South American nation of 30 million people.
Several foreign airlines have suspended flights to the country, and families of US diplomats there have been ordered to leave.
Maduro, who this week decreed a ban on anti-government demonstrations ahead of the vote, called the new body a “triumph”.
“This is the most important election held in Venezuela’s political system,” he said in a broadcast speech.
Four months of protests against Maduro’s rule, and more recently the Constituent Assembly plan, have killed 113 people.
The opposition has urged defiance of the protest ban by calling for demonstrations to intensify. It says Maduro, backed by a loyal military, is moving toward autocracy in a bid to cling to power.
It has appealed for a boycott of the election, which surveys suggest is rejected by more than 70 per cent of Venezuelans.
The US, the EU and Latin American powers - including Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and Mexico - have come out against the vote, saying it would destroy Venezuelan democracy.
The United States has already levelled sanctions at 13 current and former Venezuelan officials, and said further action could be “on the table”.
But Maduro has insisted that the “card that will win this game” is the election of the new assembly.
With the opposition staying away, and state employees pressured to vote or lose their jobs, it looked likely that the assembly would be easily elected.
On Saturday, opposition protests were far smaller than in previous days, before Maduro’s ban.
Parts of Caracas were blocked by trash barricades across roads, though much of the capital was operating unhindered.
Opposition lawmaker Freddy Guevara vowed that “there will not be calm as long as the people don’t have peace”.
He said demonstrations would start Sunday before dawn in the centre of the country before spreading to the capital.
The election, and opposition rejection of it, has heightened the sense of alarm among Venezuela’s citizens, who are finding it increasingly difficult to survive among food shortages and runaway inflation.
Long lines have formed in front of supermarkets in the capital and the neighbouring state of Vargas.
“I bought food to get through the next few days. The US has pulled out its people, my boss has disappeared and we don’t know when he’ll be back. Best to be prepared,” said one 34-year-old Caracas resident who gave his name as Maximiliano.
Neighbouring Colombia - a refuge for tens of thousands of Venezuelans fleeing the chaos at home - has said it would not recognise the results of Sunday’s election in Venezuela.
Panama has followed suit, and also backed US sanctions against Venezuelan officials.
Iberia became the latest airline to announce it was temporarily suspending flights to Venezuela because of the deteriorating security situation, and the dire economic conditions.
Air France, US carrier Delta and Colombia’s Avianca have also done so.
In a statement blasted by Maduro, Spain’s former prime minister Jose Rodriguez Zapatero said that dialogue in Venezuela “could bring an end to the grave crisis”.
But an earlier effort Zapatero headed ended in failure. The opposition has made suspension of the Constituent Assembly a condition for it to join talks.
Some in Maduro’s administration have broken ranks, most prominently his attorney general. Two diplomats resigned last week in dissent: one at the United Nations and another at the embassy in Panama.