Venezuelans stayed away from the polls in massive numbers 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 US 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 yesterdayin 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 recognise Sunday’s vote. Canada and Mexico have also issued statements repudiating the election.
Across the capital of more than 2 million people, dozens of polling places were virtually empty, including many that saw hours-long lines ofthousands voting to keep the government in power over the last 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 wereclosed. But at least three dozen other sites visited by The Associated Press had no more than a few hundred voters at any one time, with many virtually empty.
Opposition leaders had called for a boycott of the vote, declaring itrigged for the ruling party, and by late afternoon they were declaring the low turnout a resounding victory.
“It’s very clear to us that the government has suffered a defeat today,” said Julio Borges, president of the opposition-controlled but largely powerless National Assembly. “This vote brings us closer to the government leaving power.”
Maduro called the vote for a constitutional assembly in May after a month of protests against his government, which has overseen Venezuela’sdescent into a devastating crisis during its four years in power.
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 stateinstitutions, including the opposition-controlled congress.The government was encouraging participation in Sunday’s vote with tactics that included offering social benefits like subsidised food to the poor and threatening state workers’ jobs if they didn’t vote.
The Trump administration has imposed successive rounds of sanctions on high-ranking members of Maduro’s administration, with the support of countries including Mexico, Colombia and Panama.
Vice President Mike Pence promised on Friday that the US would take “strong and swift economic actions” if the vote went ahead. He didn’t say whether the US would sanction Venezuelan oil imports, a measure withthe potential to undermine Maduro but cause an even deeper humanitariancrisis here
Ahead of Sunday’s vote, the opposition organised a series of work stoppages as well as a July 16 protest vote that it said drew more than 7.5 million symbolic votes against the constitutional assembly.