After months of protests, Venezuelans brace for controversial constitutional vote

Venezuelans will go to the polls Sunday to elect the members of a controversial new body that the government says will restore peace to the troubled nation and critics claim will mean the end of democracy.

Voters will be choosing 545 members to the National Constituent Assembly, or ANC, that will become the highest law in the land. The delegates — most of them ruling-party loyalists — will have the power to rewrite the 1999 constitution, dissolve other branches of government, and call and cancel future elections.

The new body is the ultimate “blank check,” Attorney General Luisa Ortega warned local media. “A small group attached to the Executive [branch] will get to decide everything.”

The opposition fears that President Nicolás Maduro and the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela, PSUV, will use the new entity to cling to power or instate one-party rule. And that has fueled months of deadly protests and raised alarms in Washington and the region.

“We see July 30 as a critical line that, if crossed, could be the end of democracy in Venezuela,” a senior U.S. administration official said Wednesday, as new sanctions against Venezuelan officials were announced.

Read More: Washington mulls oil sanctions amid controversial Venezuela vote

Human Rights Watch, a U.S.-based non-profit, expects the ANC to use its “frighteningly wide and vaguely defined powers” to dissolve the opposition-controlled congress, lift parliamentary immunity and prosecute opposition legislators, sack the rebellious attorney general and, perhaps, suspend the presidential elections slated for December 2018.

But the new body might act in unpredictable ways.

“Maduro has given [the delegates] more power than he has,” said Russ Dallen, a managing partner at Caracas Capital, and an adviser to the U.S. government.

Even though the ANC will be packed with ruling-party faithful, analysts say factions within chavismo will be fighting for control.

On one side will be those backing Maduro, led by his wife Cilia Flores and his son Nicolás Ernesto Maduro. On the other side will be those following Diosdado Cabello, a ruling party hard-liner who is seen to have the support of the military.

Gabriel Reyes, a Caracas-based political analyst, said that if Cabello emerges as president of the ANC, he might be emboldened to undermine Maduro and pave the way for his own succession.

If that happens, “the National Constituent Assembly won’t be a problem just for the opposition but for the president and the government,” Reyes predicted.

By most accounts, Sunday’s vote is illegal. Scholars say a referendum had to be called before the government starts overhauling the constitution. That never happened. But the opposition did organize its own informal referendum on July 16, where more than 7 million people turned out — the vast majority to reject the very idea of the ANC.

Read More: Venezuelans worldwide rebuke government in vote

Even as he has pushed ahead with the constitutional rewrite, Maduro has been trying to get the opposition to the negotiating table in hopes of quelling the protests and strikes that have left almost 100 dead and paralyzed large swaths of the nation.

On Thursday, Maduro called on the opposition once again to “abandon the path of insurrection” and begin negotiations before the ANC goes to work.

That’s unlikely, however, as the opposition has said it won’t come to the table unless the constituent assembly is canceled. It is also calling for more protests over the weekend to disrupt the vote, even as the government has said it will crack down on what it considers to be illegal demonstrations.

When the late President Hugo Chávez last overhauled the constitution in 1999, the constituent assembly had almost unfettered power. This time, however, there have been suggestions that Maduro might use his loyal Supreme Court to try to control the body.

What’s clear is that the administration is making up the rules as it goes, which makes the process entirely unpredictable, said Dimitris Pantoulas, an international political consultant based in Caracas.

“The [ANC] could stay in session for 20 years or only three years, it has no limits,” he said. Ultimately, the way the ANC works might be shaped by what kind of concessions the opposition might be able to extract at future negotiations — if they ever happen.

Venezuela is already in deep turmoil, racked by triple-digit inflation, rampant crime and sporadic food shortages that have many going hungry amid collapsing oil prices.

Read More: Venezuelans flee on foot by boat, seeking fresh start

Moving ahead with the election is likely to make things worse. On Wednesday, the U.S. government slapped 13 current and former officials — including the head of the electoral office, Tibisay Lucena — with sanctions. And President Donald Trump is promising even more economic pain if Sunday’s vote happens, perhaps even cutting off Venezuela’s crucial oil exports to the United States.

But Maduro and his allies know that the ANC, despite the risks, is the only way to stay in power, as there’s little doubt they would lose an election, said Herbert Koeneke, a political science professor at the Simón Bolívar University in Caracas.

Once one of the wealthiest countries in South America, it’s not uncommon to see people digging through the garbage looking for food.

“The economic situation here has deteriorated dramatically,” he said “This level of unemployment and inflation would be lethal for any sitting president.”

But there are no guarantees that the ANC will save Maduro’s job, or bring peace to the country. If anything, the new entity almost guarantees more tension and political duress.

“Assuming Maduro does manage to install the ANC, it will create an inherently unstable equilibrium,” Risa Grais-Targow, the Latin America director for the New York-based Eurasia Group, wrote in a report. Sunday’s vote “will probably generate very limited turnout... which will further delegitimize it. Moreover, each phase of the ANC will provide the opposition with a rallying cry for additional street mobilizations.”

Pantoulas said the one thing that’s clear is that the ANC is more about political survival than actual changes to the constitution.

“At this time in the country, no one has any plans or ideas for a new constitution, this is a political decision,” he said. “This new constitution is a huge void — there’s nothing there.”

Follow me on Twitter @jimwyss

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