8 im­por­tant keys to un­der­stand­ing Venezuela’s con­tro­ver­sial elec­tion

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - AMANDA ERICKSON amanda.erickson@wash­post.com More at wash­ing­ton­post.com/ blogs/worldviews

About two months ago, Venezue­lan Pres­i­dent Ni­colás Maduro did some­thing dras­tic: He an­nounced that Venezuela needed a new con­sti­tu­tion and that he would cre­ate a “con­stituent as­sem­bly” to draft the doc­u­ment. Elec­tions for the new body, con­ducted with­out ben­e­fit of a ref­er­en­dum and un­der boy­cott by the op­po­si­tion, are set for Sun­day.

It’s a scary mo­ment for the coun­try’s democ­racy. It’s also com­pli­cated. Here are some key things to keep in mind:

What, ex­actly, is Maduro propos­ing?

Maduro wants an as­sem­bly that will re­write the con­sti­tu­tion. Tech­ni­cally, he has the power to do this — it’s what Pres­i­dent Hugo Chávez did back in 1999. There’s a key dif­fer­ence, though: Chávez kicked off the process with a na­tional ref­er­en­dum on whether the con­sti­tu­tion needed a re­boot in the first place. Maduro has skipped that step.

An­other caveat: Chávez’s con­stituent as­sem­bly was dis­solved af­ter it fin­ished its work. It’s not clear that will hap­pen this time around.

How will the new as­sem­bly work?

There will be 545 del­e­gates, of whom about two-thirds (364) will be cho­sen ac­cord­ing to ge­og­ra­phy. Each of the coun­try’s mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties will se­lect one del­e­gate. State cap­i­tals get two. Cara­cas gets seven. Since Venezuela is a strik­ingly ur­ban coun­try, and since the more pop­u­lated states have fewer mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties, this will give ru­ral vot­ers (who sup­port Maduro) sig­nif­i­cantly more say.

In ad­di­tion, 181 can­di­dates will be selected by var­i­ous con­stituen­cies and so­cial groups. For ex­am­ple, stu­dents will choose 24 mem­bers, work­ers 79, pen­sion­ers 28, in­dige­nous com­mu­ni­ties eight, busi­ness peo­ple five. It’s not clear why cer­tain con­stituen­cies have been given this power and not oth­ers. Op­po­si­tion lead­ers ac­cuse Maduro of choos­ing sec­tors with strong ties to him.

About 6,000 peo­ple are run­ning for seats; none come from the op­po­si­tion, which is boy­cotting the elec­tion.

What will the con­sti­tu­tion say?

When Maduro an­nounced the vote, he claimed that the new con­sti­tu­tion would bring peace to Venezuela. “Votes or bul­lets, what do the peo­ple want?” he asked.

Few specifics have been dis­cussed. The fear, though, is that al­lies of Maduro will use the op­por­tu­nity to tar­get op­po­si­tion lead­ers, si­lence dis­sent and in­stall an ever-more-au­to­cratic regime with fewer (or no) checks and bal­ances.

First lady Cilia Flores hinted that the as­sem­bly will cre­ate com­mis­sions to en­sure that those re­spon­si­ble for the po­lit­i­cal up­heaval “pay and learn their les­son.”

Dios­dado Ca­bello, first vice pres­i­dent of Venezuela’s so­cial­ist party, says the as­sem­bly will strip leg­is­la­tors in the op­po­si­tion­con­trolled Na­tional As­sem­bly (the coun­try’s leg­isla­tive body) of their im­mu­nity from pros­e­cu­tion. He also said it will “turn up­side down” the of­fice of Venezuela’s chief pros­e­cu­tor, which is run by an out­spo­ken Maduro critic.

Why are peo­ple wor­ried about Venezuela’s democ­racy?

The Na­tional Elec­toral Com­mis­sion, led by Maduro loy­al­ists, has given the con­stituent as­sem­bly “to­tal power to change any ex­ist­ing con­sti­tu­tion and cre­ate a new le­gal or­der.” It will also have “the power to dis­solve the Na­tional As­sem­bly and change cur­rent leg­is­la­tion.” That would ef­fec­tively give con­trol of all branches of govern­ment to Maduro and his al­lies.

Maduro has taken other steps to con­sol­i­date power. The elec­toral com­mis­sion quashed a le­gal ini­tia­tive for a re­call elec­tion last year. He packed the Supreme Court with loy­al­ists; then it tried to dis­solve the Na­tional As­sem­bly. Since March, more than 100 pro­test­ers have died at the hands of pro-govern­ment forces and more than 3,000 peo­ple have been ar­rested.

The con­stituent as­sem­bly, though, rep­re­sents a ma­jor es­ca­la­tion.

How has the op­po­si­tion re­sponded?

Since the supreme court tried to strip the Na­tional As­sem­bly of its power, the op­po­si­tion has been host­ing near-daily mass protests and gen­eral strikes.

The main op­po­si­tion par­ties also held a non­bind­ing ref­er­en­dum a cou­ple of weeks ago ask­ing Venezue­lans whether they want a new con­sti­tu­tion. Nearly half of all el­i­gi­ble vot­ers, or 7.2 mil­lion peo­ple, voted no.

What do or­di­nary Venezue­lans think?

The con­stituent as­sem­bly re­mains highly un­pop­u­lar in Venezuela. One poll in­di­cated that just 23 per­cent of cit­i­zens sup­port the idea. Half said its real pur­pose is to keep Maduro in power.

Even so, mil­lions of peo­ple will prob­a­bly show up to vote Sun­day, in part be­cause the govern­ment has ac­cess to data show­ing who does and doesn’t ap­pear. State and govern­ment work­ers worry that if they don’t come, they’ll be pe­nal­ized. And with triple-digit in­fla­tion and hor­ri­fy­ing food short­ages, no one can af­ford to lose their job.

If this is so un­pop­u­lar, why is Maduro do­ing it? He’s al­ready pres­i­dent.

When Maduro was elected pres­i­dent in 2013, he in­her­ited a coun­try with un­sus­tain­able govern­ment spend­ing and an econ­omy com­pletely re­liant on the price of oil. As oil prices dropped, Venezuela suf­fered.

Four years later, the coun­try has one of the world’s high­est in­fla­tion rates. Al­though it sits on huge oil re­serves, peo­ple can­not buy ba­sics such as food and medicine. Vi­o­lent crime is ram­pant.

Maduro’s ap­proval rat­ing is in the low 20s. To many, the con­stituent as­sem­bly seems like a des­per­ate gam­ble by a leader who knows he can’t hang onto power any other way.

What will hap­pen next?

There are a cou­ple of things to ex­pect. In­ter­na­tional groups have spo­ken out strongly against Maduro. And the United States has warned that if Maduro goes ahead with this vote, it will im­pose heavy sanc­tions. Since it buys nearly half of Venezuela’s oil, that could prove an eco­nomic death blow.

The op­po­si­tion will prob­a­bly con­tinue to rally sup­port on the streets. The op­po­si­tion­con­trolled Na­tional As­sem­bly may try to con­sol­i­date its power by ap­point­ing its own judges. That’s got ex­perts wor­ried about the pos­si­bil­ity of par­al­lel gov­ern­ments.

And the con­stituent as­sem­bly it­self is a wild card. It will have so much power that it could do any­thing. It could even re­move Maduro from of­fice.

One thing is for sure: The fight be­tween Maduro and his en­e­mies won’t end any­time soon. Protests will prob­a­bly con­tinue at least un­til the next pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. That’s slated for next year. But with a new con­sti­tu­tion in the works, who knows when it will be held, if ever?

ARI­ANA CUBILLOS/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Venezue­lan Pres­i­dent Ni­colás Maduro waves the coun­try’s flag dur­ing a rally in Cara­cas last week amid the na­tion’s up­heaval.

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