Venezuelans stay away from polls in protest
Election intended to give president’s ruling party virtually unlimited powers
Venezuelans stayed away from the polls in massive numbers on Sunday in a show of protest against a vote to grant President Nicolas Maduro’s ruling socialist party virtually unlimited powers in the face of a brutal socio-economic crisis and a grinding battle against its political opponents and groups of increasingly alienated and violent young protesters.
The government swore to continue its push for total political dominance of this once-prosperous OPEC nation, a move likely to trigger U.S. sanctions and new rounds of the street fighting that has killed at least 122 and wounded nearly 2,000 since protests began in April.
Venezuela’s chief prosecutor’s office reported seven deaths Sunday in clashes between protesters and police across the country. Seven police officers were wounded when an explosion went off as they drove past piles of trash that had been used to blockade a street in an opposition stronghold in eastern Caracas.
Argentina, Colombia, Peru, Panama, Peru and the United States said they would not recognize Sunday’s vote. Canada and Mexico have also issued statements repudiating the election.
Across the city of more than two million people, dozens of polling places were virtually empty, including many that saw hours-long lines of thousands voting to keep the government in power over the past two decades. By contrast, at the Poliedro sports and cultural complex in western Caracas, several thousand people waited about two hours to vote, many drawn from opposition-dominated neighbourhoods where polling places were closed.
Opposition leaders had called for a boycott of the vote, declaring it rigged for the ruling party, and by late afternoon they were declaring the low turnout a clear victory.
Maduro called the vote for a constitutional assembly in May after a month of protests against his government, which has overseen Venezuela’s descent into a devastating crisis during its four years in power. Thanks to plunging oil prices and widespread corruption and mismanagement, Venezuela’s inflation and homicide rates are among the world’s highest, and widespread shortages of food and medicine have citizens dying of preventable illnesses and rooting through trash to feed themselves.
The winners among the 5,500 ruling-party candidates running for 545 seats in the constituent assembly will be charged with rewriting the country’s constitution and will have powers above and beyond other state institutions, including the opposition-controlled congress.
Maduro made clear in a televised address Saturday that he intends to use the assembly not just to rewrite the country’s charter but to govern without limitation.
Maduro said he wants the assembly to strip opposition lawmakers and governors of constitutional immunity from prosecution — one of the few remaining checks on ruling party power.
Venezuelan Bolivarian National police move away from the flames after an explosion at Altamira square during clashes against anti-government demonstrators in Caracas, Venezuela, on Sunday.