What is the Constituent Assembly and why is there opposition?: A guide to Venezuela's election

COMPILED FROM WIRE SERVICES
ISTANBUL
Published 29.07.2017 22:58
Updated 30.07.2017 00:03
A woman wrapped in a Venezuelan national flag pastes a sign against President Maduro and his call for Constituent Assembly on the wall of a school which will be used as polling station, in Caracas, on July 24, 2017. (AFP Photo)
A woman wrapped in a Venezuelan national flag pastes a sign against President Maduro and his call for Constituent Assembly on the wall of a school which will be used as polling station, in Caracas, on July 24, 2017. (AFP Photo)

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's determination to hold a vote Sunday to elect a new body -- a "Constituent Assembly" tasked with reforming the constitution -- has triggered deadly protests and international criticism.

Well, what is the new body? Why does Maduro want it? And why is the opposition so angry?

WHAT IS IT?

The Constituent Assembly will comprise 545 elected representatives, 364 of whom will come from municipal circumscriptions (one from each, except state capitals which will get two, and Caracas, which will get seven).

That could favor rural areas, where Maduro has greater support.

The other 181 members will be drawn from unions -- another source of Maduro support -- civil and social groups, business groups, and indigenous communities.

The assembly is to be tasked with amending the constitution passed under Maduro's late predecessor and mentor, Hugo Chavez.

But it will also have the power to change laws and dissolve the legislature, the National Assembly, which is controlled by the opposition.

Maduro has promised the new constitution would be put to Venezuelans for their approval in a referendum.

The assembly is certain to continue the socialist policies first installed by Chavez.

Aside from rewriting the constitution, the National Constituent Assembly could function as a sort of super-body that assumes the powers of the National Assembly, the only government branch not controlled by Maduro.

WHY DOES MADURO WANT IT?

Maduro says the assembly will give power to the people to help Venezuela survive what he says is a US-backed right-wing "coup" plot to topple his socialist government.

"We need a power that is above the other powers that are sabotaging the country's development," Maduro said.

But he has not explained what should be changed from the current constitution, nor what specific reforms would put an end to Venezuela's political and economic crisis.

His opponents suspect the move is aimed at strengthening his hold on power by filling the assembly with his supporters.

Among the candidates wanting to sit on the new assembly is Maduro's wife, Cilia Flores.

WHY IS THERE OPPOSITION?

Most Venezuelans don't want a Constituent Assembly. According to Datanalisis, a polling firm, 70 percent are against the idea.Only 19 percent said they thought a new constitution would "guarantee the peace of stability of the country," as Maduro has asserted. Nearly half said they believe the purpose of the assembly is to ensure Maduro stays in power.

On July 16, a third of the 20-million-strong electorate came out in an opposition-held unofficial referendum to vote against Sunday's election of the body.

The opposition coalition, the Democratic Unity Roundtable, has called a boycott of the ballot. But that means Maduro's supporters will be the only ones voting -- and possibly more than once, according to an analysis by an expert, Eugenio Martinez.

However, Luis Vicente Leon, president of Datanalsis, said that because the government has access to data showing who does and does not vote, many people are likely to feel obligated to participate or risk losing their jobs in a country with severe food shortages and triple-digit inflation.

"If this was a free election, without pressure, about a third of the number that participated in the popular consult would vote," he said, referring to the opposition referendum.

Critics say the process around the assembly and a new constitution would delay overdue regional and local polls, and perhaps even the presidential election set for late 2018 -- which the widely unpopular Maduro would be sure to lose.

The United States and other international powers have urged Maduro to drop his plan and respect the electoral calendar.

WHAT IS AT STAKE FOR THE GOVERNMENT?

Its survival.

Recent breaks with Maduro by high-level officials including longtime government loyalist Luisa Ortega Diaz, the chief prosecutor, and a string of former Cabinet ministers under Chavez indicate discord already exists within the ruling party.

Radical changes in the 1999 constitution, which was crafted by Chavez and considered one of his crowning legacies, could cause even greater division, said John Magdaleno, director of the Caracas-based consulting firm POLITY.

"It's not just a matter of whether the constituent assembly is put in place or not," he said. "It's what impact its creation could have."

Foreign governments including the United States have threatened to further isolate the government.

President Donald Trump has said the U.S. will take "strong and swift economic actions" if the constituent assembly election proceeds. That could potentially include reducing U.S. imports of Venezuelan oil, a move that could cripple the economy. The government relies heavily on the U.S. as a source of hard currency, because its oil exports to other major trade partners like China are paying off debts.

HOW IS THE OPPOSITION LIKELY TO RESPOND?

The conflict between the government and the opposition won't end Sunday.

A coalition of Venezuelan opposition parties proposed but then appeared to back away from its call to form an alternative "government of national unity." Nonetheless, a recent move by the opposition-controlled National Assembly to appoint 33 magistrates to replace the government-stacked Supreme Court again raised the specter of a potential parallel government.

"The question is whether that parallel government could govern," said Leon, the pollster.

For now, any alternative officials named by the opposition remain purely symbolic. Three of the 33 opposition-appointed magistrates have been detained, while the others have been threatened with arrest and are unable to fill their posts.

A prolonged conflict appears increasingly likely. Third parties have sought unsuccessfully to forge negotiations between the administration and its foes.

The next presidential election is now set for next year, but the constituent assembly could change that and further anger the opposition.

"We're talking about a conflict that will last until there are elections," said Benigno Alarcon, director of the Center of for Political Students at Andres Bello Catholic University in Caracas.

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