8 important keys to understanding Venezuela’s controversial election
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?
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro waves the country’s flag during a rally in Caracas last week amid the nation’s upheaval.