By MICHAEL WEISSENSTEIN and FABIOLA SANCHEZ
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuela’s socialist government says a national election has given it a popular mandate to dramatically recast the country’s political system even as condemnations of the process have poured in from nations abroad and the opponents at home.
Electoral authorities said more than 8 million people voted Sunday to create a constitutional assembly endowing President Nicolas Maduro’s ruling party with virtually unlimited powers, though independent analysts estimated the real turnout was less than half that figure.
Opposition leader Henrique Capriles, the governor of the central state of Miranda, urged Venezuelans to protest Monday against an assembly that critics fear will effectively create a single-party state.
Maduro has said the new assembly will begin to govern within a week. He said he would use the assembly’s powers to bar opposition candidates from running in gubernatorial elections in December unless they sit with his party to negotiate an end to hostilities that have generated four months of protests that have killed at least 125 and wounded nearly 2,000.
Venezuela’s chief prosecutor’s office reported 10 deaths in new rounds of clashes Sunday between protesters and police. Seven police officers were wounded when a fiery explosion went off as they drove past piles of trash that had been used to blockade a street in an opposition stronghold in eastern Caracas.
Maduro says a new constitution is the only way to end such conflicts.
“The people have delivered the constitutional assembly,” Maduro said on national television. “More than 8 million in the middle of threats … it’s when imperialism challenges us that we prove ourselves worthy of the blood of the liberators that runs through the veins of men, women, children and young people.”
National Electoral Council President Tibisay Lucena announced just before midnight that turnout in Sunday’s vote was 41.53 percent, or 8,089,320 people. Members of the opposition said they believed between 2 million and 3 million people voted and one well-respected independent analysis put the number at 3.6 million.
The electoral council’s vote counts in the past have been seen as reliable and generally accurate, but the widely mocked announcement appeared certain to escalate the polarization and political conflict paralyzing the country.
“If it wasn’t a tragedy … if it didn’t mean more crisis, the electoral council’s number would almost make you laugh,” opposition leader Freddy Guevara said on Twitter. Maduro has threatened that one of the constitutional assembly’s first acts would be jailing Guevara for inciting violence.
An exit poll based on surveys from 110 voting centers by New York investment bank Torino Capital and a Venezuela public opinion company estimated 3.6 million people voted, or about 18.5 percent of registered voters. “The results thus suggest that the government maintains an important loyal core of supporters that it can mobilize in both electoral and non-electoral scenarios,” the report concluded.
The same pollsters noted that Venezuela has an estimated 2.6 million government employees, “suggesting that a large fraction of the votes could have not been voluntary.”
Nations including Argentina, Canada, Colombia, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Spain, Britain and the United States said they would not recognize Sunday’s vote. The Trump administration again promised “strong and swift actions” against Venezuelan officials, including the 545 participants in the constitutional assembly, many of them low-ranking party members.
The U.S. did not say whether it would sanction Venezuelan oil imports, a measure with the potential to destabilize Maduro’s government and deepen the country’s humanitarian crisis.
Maduro said he had received congratulations from the governments of Cuba, Bolivia and Nicaragua, among others.
Opposition leaders had called for a boycott of the vote, declaring it rigged for the ruling party. Ahead of the vote, the opposition organized a series of work stoppages as well as a July 16 protest referendum that it said drew more than 7.5 million symbolic votes against the constitutional assembly.
“It’s very clear to us that the government has suffered a defeat today,” said Julio Borges, president of the opposition-controlled but largely powerless National Assembly. “This vote brings us closer to the government leaving power.”
Maduro called the vote for a constitutional assembly in May after a month of protests against his government, which has overseen Venezuela’s descent into a devastating crisis during its four years in power. Due to plunging oil prices and widespread corruption and mismanagement, Venezuela’s inflation and homicide rates are among the world’s highest, and widespread shortages of food and medicine have citizens dying of preventable illnesses and rooting through trash to feed themselves.
The winners among the 5,500 ruling-party candidates running for 545 seats in the constituent assembly will have the task of rewriting the country’s constitution and will have powers above and beyond other state institutions, including the opposition-controlled congress.
Maduro made clear in a televised address Saturday that he intends to use the assembly not just to rewrite the country’s charter but to govern without limitation. Describing the vote as “the election of a power that’s above and beyond every other,” Maduro said he wants the assembly to strip opposition lawmakers and governors of constitutional immunity from prosecution — one of the few remaining checks on ruling party power.
Declaring the opposition “already has its prison cell waiting,” Maduro added: “All the criminals will go to prison for the crimes they’ve committed.”