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Venezuela’s controversial new Constituent Assembly, explained

- August 1, 2017

On Sunday, Venezuelans took to the streets to either vote in or boycott a controversial election to choose members of an all-powerful Constituent Assembly. The new assembly will be made up completely of government supporters but will have authority over the lives of all Venezuelans.

The vote came in the midst of a constitutional crisis. For four months, there have been widespread protests, repression and failed negotiations as the government of President Nicolás Maduro battles the opposition Democratic Unity (MUD) coalition.

Here are five key questions and answers about Sunday’s vote.

Why did the government hold this vote?

The government said it was to bring peace to the conflicted country, but it was widely seen as a move to avoid holding other scheduled elections that the government expected to lose — including elections for governors and mayors in 2017 and for president in 2018.

The government’s approval rating has hovered around 20 percent because of the weakening economy, shortages of food and medicine, and the Supreme Court’s controversial decision to curtail the authority of the legislature. The resulting protests have left more than 100 dead, and at least 10 more died during Sunday’s vote.

What is a constituent assembly?

President Hugo Chávez established a similar body in 1999 that was intended to give the people “originary” power. Venezuelan constituent assemblies have the authority not only to change the constitution but also to dismiss existing officials and institutions.

The newly elected assembly is expected to dismiss the rebellious attorney general and perhaps even the opposition-dominated legislature. On Sunday night, Maduro called on the assembly to lift the immunity of legislators and to hold them accountable via a new Truth and Reparations Commission. This has led to fears of yet more recrimination and repression.

Theoretically, the Constituent Assembly could assert yet more power and even cancel the presidential election next year.

What was the outcome of the vote, and was it fair?

The opposition boycotted the vote, and opinion polls before the vote indicated that only 15 percent of registered voters definitely planned to vote. Government workers and poor people receiving subsidized food were heavily pressured to vote or risk losing their jobs and benefits. Media and independent observers reported long lines at one large stadium in Caracas that combined multiple voting centers but otherwise very short or no lines across the country. The official turnout of 8.1 million voters, or 42 percent of registered voters, was disputed by the opposition and treated with skepticism by analysts and observers.

The election’s rules were heavily biased in favor of Maduro’s government. Instead of “one-person, one-vote,” every municipality in the country elected one delegate and state capitals elected two, no matter the size of the town or city. In addition, a proportion of delegates was reserved for selection by members of specified organizations such as students, workers and indigenous groups. This helped ensure that a larger number of delegates would come from constituencies favorable to Maduro, even if the opposition participated.

The vote lacked many of the safeguards normally present in Venezuelan elections. The government agency in charge of the election skipped 14 of the 21 audits of the automated system, did not use indelible ink, and allowed people to vote anywhere in their city, not only where they were registered. Ballots didn’t even have names of candidates, just numbers.

What has been the international reaction?

A number of Latin American countries, the United States, Canada and Spain have said that they will recognize neither the outcome of the vote nor the decisions emanating from the Constituent Assembly. Peru has called for a meeting of regional foreign ministers on Aug. 8.

The willingness of other countries to ignore the Constituent Assembly is important. In March, the Supreme Court eliminated the authority of the existing legislature to approve financial transactions, loans and joint ventures. If the Constituent Assembly assumes that responsibility but its decisions are not recognized, this will affect foreign investment in and international transactions with Venezuela.

In addition, several countries have joined the existing U.S. sanctions targeted toward individuals in Venezuela, and on Monday, the Trump administration imposed further sanctions on Maduro himself, freezing any assets he has in the United States and prohibiting Americans from doing business with him.

What happens next?

If international isolation builds and public opposition continues, some in the government may be willing to open negotiations and create a transitional government that could begin to stabilize the economy and restore the separation of powers in the country.

To reach such an agreement, however, the government and opposition will need guarantees that they will not be targeted by the other — including with judicial witch hunts or political and economic exclusion. The chance of success will increase if other countries provide emergency aid and monitor the negotiations as well as compliance with any agreement.

If these conditions do not emerge, then the government is likely to escalate the conflict by dissolving the legislature and jailing dissidents. Some Venezuelans will then resort to arms, and repression and violence will escalate.

Jennifer McCoy is Distinguished University Professor of Political Science at Georgia State University and co-author of International Mediation in Venezuela (United States Institute of Peace Press, 2011).