Venezuelan weekend vote seen as last chance to stop power grab

A masked anti-government protester aims an object at security forces during a call by the opposition to block roads for 10 hours in Caracas, Venezuela, Monday, July 10, 2017.
A masked anti-government protester aims an object at security forces during a call by the opposition to block roads for 10 hours in Caracas, Venezuela, Monday, July 10, 2017. AP

Venezuelans head to the polls Sunday in a tense vote that the opposition hopes will mark a watershed — and the government insists means nothing at all.

The weekend plebiscite will ask voters if they support the government’s plan to elect an unpopular National Constituent Assembly that will overhaul the 1999 constitution.

Critics, including some inside the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela, fear that President Nicolás Maduro will use the new entity to tighten his hold on the South American country and further delay — or outright cancel — elections.

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“The Constituent Assembly is a fraud, because it doesn’t resolve any of the problems that Venezuelans are facing, like hunger and crime,” said opposition congressman Omar Ávila, with the Unidad Visión Venezuela party. “This is another trick to try to hold onto power ... until we simply can’t take it anymore.”

Organizers of Sunday’s vote are hoping that if they can get millions of people to reject the deal, the government might be persuaded to drop its plans.

So far, that seems unlikely.

Maduro and his supporters say Sunday’s referendum is illegitimate. And they’re pushing forward with their own July 30 vote to elect 527 members of the assembly, known as ANC for its name in Spanish, in a process designed to stack the body with the party faithful.

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This week, Maduro reiterated his claims that the ANC was “the only solution” to bring peace to the troubled nation after more than 100 days of anti-government protests have left more than 90 dead.

Even so, a massive turnout Sunday rejecting the plan would be another signal to the world that the administration has gone rogue and is ignoring the will of the people, analysts said.

The vote “will largely be symbolic, but in politics symbols are important,” said Ronal Rodríguez with the Venezuelan Observatory, a think tank at Colombia’s Rosario University. “This could give oxygen to the opposition and fuel more disobedience.”

Organizers say the vote might be followed by a national strike. And analysts said it could put the opposition on course to recover the presidency during elections in December 2018 — if those elections happen.

One of the major dangers of the ANC, critics say, is that it will have sweeping powers, including over future elections. The body might rearrange the electoral calendar or “might decide that only left-handed people with long hair” have the constitutional right to vote, Rodríguez said.

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With about 20 million registered voters in Venezuela, organizers of Sunday’s plebiscite are hoping that as many as 10 million will reject the ANC.

The unofficial referendum has all the hallmarks of a major election: There will be voting centers nationwide and in more than 75 countries. There will be eight voting centers in Miami alone.

And former presidents of Costa Rica, Colombia, Bolivia and Mexico are expected to act as international observers.

And yet the Venezuelan government insists it’s all political theater. The administration doesn’t recognize the opposition-controlled National Assembly, so it contends that congress didn’t have the right to call the vote in the first place. And the National Electoral Council says the results are not legally binding.

Instead, the administration seems to be trying to squelch turnout by holding a “trial run” of its own ANC vote the same day, raising the specter of partisan street clashes.

Polls show that 80 percent of Venezuelans reject the ANC, but it remains to be seen if that will be reflected in the vote.

A survey released this week by DatinCorp found that 44 percent of those questioned said they would “definitely” vote in Sunday’s plebiscite, which is equivalent to about 8.8 million people. By contrast, 31 percent said they would “definitely” not vote.

Even those who favor the election have doubts about its impact.

“There’s no way this vote will allow us to escape from this government,” said Ávila, the opposition deputy. Even if a massive turnout led the president to step down, “we would be stuck with the vice president” through the end of Maduro’s term in 2019.

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And that’s the irony of the ANC. That body will have the power to call snap presidential elections. But because it will be stacked with loyalists, that’s not going to happen, he said.

Jason Marczak, with the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center in Washington, D.C., said Sunday’s vote will be another chance for the opposition to capture global attention and prove that the Maduro administration is acting illegitimately. But once the constitutional body begins to work, likely in August, all bets are off.

“The thought is that the Constituent Assembly will basically provide the government with a cloak of legitimacy for its real intentions,” he said, “which is to usurp all power and put it in the hands of the regime, and eliminate the last checks and balances that pretend to exist in Venezuela.”

Follow Jim Wyss on Twitter @jimwyss