“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.”
Opposition leader Henrique Capriles urged Venezuelans to protest again Monday.
Maduro called the vote for a constitutional assembly in May after a month of protests against his government, which has overseen Venezuela’s descent into a devastating crisis during its four years in power. Thanks to plunging oil prices and widespread corruption and mismanagement, Venezuela’s inflation and homicide rates are among the world’s highest, and widespread shortages of food and medicine have citizens dying of preventable illnesses and rooting through trash to feed themselves.
The winners among the 5,500 ruling-party candidates running for 545 seats in the constituent assembly will have the task of rewriting the country’s constitution and will have powers above and beyond other state institutions, including the opposition-controlled congress.
Maduro made clear in a televised address Saturday that he intends to use the assembly not just to rewrite the country’s charter but to govern without limitation. Describing the vote as “the election of a power that’s above and beyond every other,” Maduro said he wants the assembly to strip opposition lawmakers and governors of constitutional immunity from prosecution — one of the few remaining checks on ruling party power.
Declaring the opposition “already has its prison cell waiting,” Maduro added: “All the criminals will go to prison for the crimes they’ve committed.”
He said the new assembly would begin to govern within a week, with its first task in rewriting the constitution to be “a total transformation” of the office of Venezuela’s chief prosecutor, a former government loyalist who has become the highest-ranking official to publicly split from the president.
“People aren’t in agreement with this,” Daniel Ponza, a drywall contractor, said Sunday as he watched a few dozen people outside a polling place in El Valle, a traditional stronghold of the ruling Chavista movement in western Caracas. “People are dying of hunger, looking for food in the trash. And I think this is just going to make things worse.”
Still, for many others, the looming likelihood of authoritarian government was appealing after months of street blockades and street clashes.
Sculptor Ricardo Avendano traveled from the opposition-dominated eastern neighborhood of Las Mercedes to vote at the Poliedro complex, saying the government needed total power to control food prices and shut down protests.
“The most important thing is imposing order,” he said. “If I’d been president there wouldn’t be protesters in the streets. They’d be prisoners.”