Constituent Assembly: Why Venezuela voted, and why it matters

Economic and political crises have continued escalating throughout months-long protests – a situation President Nicolás Maduro says can only be fixed with a new assembly, and a new constitution. Critics call it a final turning point away from democracy.

Ariana Cubillos/AP
Voters wait to cast their ballots next murals of Venezuelan Independence hero Ezequiel Zamora (l.) and the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, at a polling station in Caracas, Venezuela, on July 30, 2017.

After four months of steady anti-government protests, clashes between citizens and armed forces, and increasingly dire shortages of food and medical supplies, the world watched last weekend as Venezuela stepped into uncharted waters. President Nicolás Maduro hosted a nationwide vote to form a Constituent Assembly granted nearly unlimited legal powers and slated to rewrite the Constitution. What does this mean for the future of Venezuela?

What were Venezuelans voting for on July 30?

Venezuelans were selecting delegates to serve on a Constituent Assembly. The 545 members were chosen from a pool of about 6,000 candidates to rewrite the country's Constitution, drafted and passed under former President Hugo Chávez. Mr. Maduro’s wife, likely his son, and powerful ruling-party politicians were among those selected to serve on the Assembly, which is stacked with government sympathizers. Two-thirds of the delegates were chosen by voters from their region, while one-third were chosen to represent special groups, including indigenous communities and students. A poll suggests that 85 percent of Venezuelans oppose rewriting the Constitution.

Why does the Constituent Assembly matter?

The 1999 Constitution is a potent symbol of Chavismo and the Socialist project Mr. Chávez began, known as the Bolivarian Revolution. But now, the government says rewriting it will promote “reconciliation and peace” amid extreme polarization and simultaneous economic, political, and humanitarian crises.

In critics’ eyes, the process of drafting a new Constitution is a final grab at power, allowing the government to potentially do away with what remains of the democratic system. The opposition boycotted the vote and many argue it should never have happened without first holding a public referendum of support.

And it’s not just the Constitution, referred to by Chávez as the most important text after the Bible, that could change. The Constituent Assembly has the power to dissolve state institutions, including the opposition-run National Assembly, creating large-scale change by decree. Opponents – who now go beyond the “usual suspects” in the opposition, to include former Chávez supporters – fear this marks the end of Venezuela’s democracy.

How did the vote go?

Maduro called it a victory. But, despite months of sometimes violent protests, the vote marked the single deadliest day in Venezuela’s political theatre since demonstrations began in April. At least 10 people were killed, including an aspiring delegate named on the ballot. 

The government claims more than 8 million people cast votes, but that number is strongly disputed. That’s roughly the voter turnout for elections when Chávez was at the height of his popularity, while Maduro has suffered the low approval rating of about 20 percent in recent months. The opposition estimates roughly 2.5 million citizens turned out Sunday for the vote, which Maduro referenced as a “constituent party” and the United States called a “sham.”

Many of those casting votes last weekend were required to do so in order to keep public-sector jobs. There were no election observers or other standard measures to safeguard the authenticity of the vote. And many centers were reportedly deserted: One side-by-side photo posted by a Wall Street Journal correspondent on Twitter shows crowds gathered during a mid-July practice vote and no lines for the actual event on Sunday.

How is the international community reacting?

In a region so closely situated to the power-wielding (and historically quick-to-meddle) US, any kind of intervention in another country’s affairs has long been considered taboo.

Yet 10 Latin American countries, including Colombia and Mexico, condemned the vote and said they wouldn’t recognize the results.

Four of those neighboring countries have said they will join the US in enacting sanctions for following through with the vote. If these sanctions did, in fact, move forward, it would be the first time Latin American countries sanctioned their regional neighbors, experts say.

The US sanctioned Maduro on Monday, freezing his US-based assets and barring anyone in the US from dealing with him. The US is reportedly considering moves to target Venezuelan oil – the country's lifeline – as well. Venezuela has the largest proven oil reserves in the world, but after falling oil prices and years of disincentivizing local food production, it is now struggling to import needed food and medical products for its citizens.

As the international isolation of Venezuela increases, observers hope the government will be pressured to make a change, start a formal dialogue with the opposition, or even step down. But Venezuela still has some friends in its corner, including Bolivia, Russia, Cuba, and Nicaragua.

What’s next for Venezuela?

Once drafted, the new Constitution will be put to a public vote, the government says. But there are no time limits in place, and already the government is using the new assembly – which will go into effect on Wednesday – as an occasion to clean house. On Monday, Maduro called for the restructuring of the prosecutor’s office, which is currently led by former Chavista-turned-Maduro-critic Attorney General Luisa Ortega. She told a news conference after the vote that the government is showing “dictatorial ambition.”

“This will be the end of the freedom to demonstrate, and of freedom of expression,” Ms. Ortega said. The next day, families of two opposition leaders reported that the politicians had been seized from their homes.

The assembly could also do away with the democratically-elected, opposition-led National Assembly, which lawmakers say would create a parallel government, as they have no plans to step down. Many believe the assembly will be used to postpone the 2018 presidential election, as well.

But some question whether the Constituent Assembly could backfire on Maduro. Divisions within the socialist party are no secret, and although Maduro was tapped by Chávez before his death, some say the assembly’s power could be used to oust the president, bringing a new party leader into the top seat.

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