Venezue­lans stay away from polls in protest

Elec­tion in­tended to give pres­i­dent’s rul­ing party vir­tu­ally un­lim­ited pow­ers

The Hamilton Spectator - - CANADA & WORLD - MICHAEL WEISSENSTEIN

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.

AR­I­ANA CUBILLOS, THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

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.

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