Show­down over dis­puted as­sem­bly looms

Op­po­si­tion to fight plan to re­write con­sti­tu­tion


CARA­CAS, VENEZUELA | Venezuela is near­ing a show­down, with Pres­i­dent Ni­co­las Maduro vow­ing to in­stall a new con­stituent as­sem­bly that will trump ev­ery other branch of gov­ern­ment, and op­po­si­tion lead­ers calling for a mass protest to en­sure del­e­gates know their ar­rival is un­wel­come.

The first meet­ing of the 545 del­e­gates is ex­pected to con­vene Friday at the leg­isla­tive palace in Cara­cas — only yards from the room where the op­po­si­tion­con­trolled Na­tional As­sem­bly holds its ses­sions.

The leg­isla­tive palace has been wit­ness to bloody clashes in re­cent weeks, and Friday’s in­stal­la­tion of the all-pow­er­ful as­sem­bly, which Mr. Maduro has vowed to use to strip op­po­si­tion law­mak­ers of their con­sti­tu­tional im­mu­nity, sets the stage for an in­ten­si­fied power strug­gle. Op­po­si­tion law­mak­ers in the congress have vowed they will only be re­moved by force.

“The only way they’ll get us out of here is by killing us,” de­clared Freddy Gue­vara, the Na­tional As­sem­bly’s first vice pres­i­dent. “They will never have the seat that the peo­ple of Venezuela gave us.”

Sun­day’s elec­tion of the Maduro-en­gi­neered con­stituent as­sem­bly has come un­der mount­ing scru­tiny af­ter the CEO of an in­ter­na­tional vot­ing tech­nol­ogy com­pany said Wed­nes­day that “with­out any doubt” the voter turnout num­bers had been tam­pered with — ac­cu­sa­tions that the so­cial­ist pres­i­dent and the Na­tional Elec­toral Coun­cil have dis­missed. A grow­ing list of for­eign na­tions has re­fused to rec­og­nize the as­sem­bly.

“There has been a grad­ual ero­sion of demo­cratic prac­tice, and this is a sig­nif­i­cant line that has been crossed,” said Michael Shifter, pres­i­dent of the Wash­ing­ton-based think tank In­ter-Amer­i­can Di­a­logue.

Prom­i­nent con­stituent as­sem­bly mem­bers like Dios­dado Ca­bello, the leader of the rul­ing so­cial­ist party, have said they plan to tar­get the op­po­si­tion­con­trolled congress and the coun­try’s chief prose­cu­tor, Luisa Ortega Diaz -- a long­time sup­porter of the late Hugo Chavez -- and Mr. Ortega Diaz re­cently broke with Mr. Maduro. As one of its first tasks, Mr. Maduro has or­dered the as­sem­bly to de­clare Ms. Ortega Diaz’s of­fice in a state of emer­gency and en­tirely re­struc­ture it.

In a con­tin­u­ing show of de­fi­ance, Ms. Ortega Diaz filed a court order Thurs­day de­mand­ing that the in­stal­la­tion of the new as­sem­bly be halted. The re­quest, filed to a lower court in an ap­par­ent at­tempt to cir­cum­vent the gov­ern­ment-stacked Supreme Court, was al­most cer­tain to be de­nied.

Pledges by op­po­si­tion law­mak­ers to re­main in power no mat­ter what ac­tion the con­stituent as­sem­bly takes have opened the pos­si­bil­ity of two govern­ing bod­ies op­er­at­ing side by side — nei­ther rec­og­niz­ing the other.

One op­po­si­tion law­maker, Henry Ramos Allup, said this week that if forcibly ex­pelled from the leg­isla­tive palace, the Na­tional As­sem­bly could po­ten­tially hold its ses­sions at an­other site.

Anti-gov­ern­ment lead­ers are calling on Venezue­lans to protest Friday just as the new con­stituent as­sem­bly mem­bers take of­fice.

The Na­tional Elec­toral Coun­cil said 8 mil­lion Venezue­lans voted in the elec­tion, though in­de­pen­dent an­a­lysts and op­po­si­tion lead­ers con­tend the turnout was al­most cer­tainly less than half that fig­ure.

Venezuela’s pres­i­dent de­fi­antly dis­missed those al­le­ga­tions, telling the new con­stituent mem­bers on Wed­nes­day that he not only stood by the of­fi­cial count, but be­lieved an­other 2 mil­lion peo­ple would have voted if not blocked by antigov­ern­ment pro­test­ers.

With the op­po­si­tion boy­cotting the elec­tion, vir­tu­ally all the can­di­dates were sup­port­ers of Mr. Maduro’s rul­ing so­cial­ist party, so turnout was watched as one of the only in­di­ca­tors of how much pop­u­lar sup­port there is for the con­stituent as­sem­bly.

An­to­nio Mug­ica, the head of the Lon­don-based vot­ing tech­nol­ogy firm Smart­matic, said his com­pany’s au­to­mated elec­tion sys­tem is de­signed to show when re­sults are ma­nip­u­lated but re­quires that a large num­ber of au­di­tors par­tic­i­pate from both the rul­ing and op­po­si­tion par­ties, which he said did not hap­pen dur­ing Sun­day’s vote.

“This would not have oc­curred if the au­di­tors of all po­lit­i­cal par­ties had been present at ev­ery stage of the elec­tion,” he said.


Op­po­si­tion law­maker Manuela Bo­li­var (left) en­ters the Venezue­lan Gen­eral Prose­cu­tor’s of­fice to in­tro­duce a pe­ti­tion for an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the elec­tions in Cara­cas, Venezuela. Pres­i­dent Ni­co­las Maduro de­fi­antly dis­missed th­ese al­le­ga­tions.

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