Venezuela’s upcoming vote could be the ‘final death knell’ for its democracy


CARACAS — Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro is set to defy pleas from world leaders and his own people on Sunday by holding an election which is expected to plunge the crisis-ridden country into new depths of uncertainty.

The vote will create a new Constituent Assembly tasked with rewriting the country’s constitution.

In an act of protest, the opposition has declined to put up candidates and encouraged citizens to boycott the election, arguing that the way the assembly has been set up is skewed in Maduro’s favour.

Even the attorney general, longtime government loyalist Luisa Ortega, came out against Maduro and his plans, saying it was illegal to create such a body without a referendum.

Venezuelans overwhelmingly rejected Maduro’s plans in a non-binding referendum organized by the opposition last week, with 98.4 percent of voting against them. The turnout of 7.1 million people represented about one third of the country’s electorate.

US President Donald Trump has called Maduro a “bad leader who dreams of becoming a dictator” and announced sanctions against Venezuelan officials on Wednesday in response to Maduro’s refusal to drop his plans.

But none of this has deterred Maduro.

Venezuela is mired in an economic crisis triggered by the 2014 drop in oil prices, with the highest inflation rate in the world and chronic shortages of basic goods and medical supplies.

Anti-government protests have become an almost daily occurrence since the loyalist Supreme Court unsuccessfully tried to strip the country’s opposition-led legislature, the National Assembly, of its power in late March.

Clashes between demonstrators and security forces have left at least 100 people dead, and the government has announced plans to deploy 132,000 soldiers to guard 14,515 voting stations across the country on election day.

If the vote goes ahead and Maduro’s Constituent Assembly comes into being, this will dissolve the last semblance of democracy in the country, says Shannon K O’Neil, a Latin America expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

“We have seen an undermining of the checks and balances and the workings of democracy over the last few years, but this would be the final death knell,” O’Neil told dpa.

A Constituent Assembly stacked with Maduro supporters, and that would be able to override lawmakers in the National Assembly, would leave power firmly consolidated in the hands of the president’s socialist party, she said.

And international outcry only goes so far: The prospect of hitting Venezuela with international sanctions is limited at the UN by the country’s ties with China and Russia, and at the Organization of American States (OAS) by loyalty from Caribbean nations who have benefited from cheap oil sales from Venezuela in the past, O’Neil says.

OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro has warned of the possibility of civil war: “We are very afraid that the horror will develop into a bloodbath,” he said in a report earlier this month.

But OAS member states have been unable to reach a consensus on any joint action to push against Maduro’s plans, which look set to go ahead.

“The government is only concerned with its own survival and does not yet appear to be convinced that the game is up and it needs to negotiate an exit strategy,” Phillip Gunson, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group based in Caracas, told dpa.