Venezuela constitutional row: a quick guide

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.

Opposition demonstrators clash with riot police in Caracas
Opposition demonstrators clash with riot police in Caracas (AFP)

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.

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.

Key events in Venezuela since Nicolas Maduro came to power
Key events in Venezuela since Nicolas Maduro came to power (AFP)

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

Maduro has not said whether the new constitution would be put to Venezuelans for their approval in a referendum as Chavez's was in 1999.

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.

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.

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.

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.