Venezuela's Constituent Assembly: what we know

Venezuela held elections Sunday for a Constituent Assembly backed by embattled President Nicolas Maduro to rewrite the constitution. Opposition activists and some foreign countries have doubts. What do we know -- and not know -- about the vote?

A man casts his vote to elect a Constituent Assembly in Caracas on July 30, 2017
A man casts his vote to elect a Constituent Assembly in Caracas on July 30, 2017 (AFP)

Venezuela held elections Sunday for a Constituent Assembly backed by embattled President Nicolas Maduro to rewrite the constitution. Opposition activists and some foreign countries have doubts. What do we know -- and not know -- about the vote?

What we know

The Constituent Assembly will be a "superagency" with authority above all government branches, including the one-chamber National Assembly. It currently is the only part of the government controlled by the opposition.

"It can start everything over from scratch. It can create everything. It is the power of all powers; none is above it," Maduro has said.

The president, an elected socialist, has made the economy increasingly state-led; food and medical shortages are common. Low crude prices have strained the economy as it has been restructured, to the breaking point.

At least nine people died overnight and into Sunday, according to prosecutors, adding to a four-month death toll of some 120.

The looming system to be drafted by pro-government members would have no checks and balances, and endangers democracy, according to analyst Colette Capriles.

"He already has set up a body that can implement a dictatorship.... So society and the international community have to stand up against this," she argued.

Many in Venezuela fear it will be even more Cuban-inspired. One-party, Communist-ruled Cuba is Venezuela's closest ally, followed distantly by China and Russia.

The new constitution will be drawn up by 545 assembly members. While 354 will be based on territories, another 181 will come from social organizations close to the government. The opposition, which is boycotting the vote, slams the voting arrangement as corporative since it was drawn up by the government.

"This is not an election. It's a fraudulent bid to consolidate" a coup, according to legal expert Jose Ignacio Hernandez.

The government calls the specially arranged voting "direct democracy." But opposition members stress that Maduro has been unable to work with the National Assembly, so he is taking action that likely would eliminate it, or put it in his pocket.

The Constituent Assembly will start work Wednesday in the legislature's building where the opposition-run assembly also will be in session.

Maduro said the new constitution, which would replace the one passed under his predecessor ex-president Hugo Chavez, will be put to a referendum vote.

"That's the last thing that matters," quipped Colette Capriles, since Maduro and others have said that even before any such vote, the Constituent Assembly would be making executive and legislative decisions.

Government forces are sending out some favorites for the assembly positions: ruling PSUV number two Diosdado Cabello, ex-foreign minister Delcy Rodriguez and first lady Cilia Flores.

The United States has threatened tougher sanctions if the assembly election moved ahead as planned. Other countries such as Canada, Colombia, Panama and Peru have said they would not recognize the assembly's authority.

What we don't know

It's unclear how long the assembly will be in session. Its members will decide that.

As a super-branch of government, Maduro foes are worried that the Constituent Assembly will start eliminating agencies or even entire branches of government, such as the National Assembly or the Federal Prosecutors' Office.

The Constituent Assembly will be a "superagency" with authority above all government branches
The Constituent Assembly will be a "superagency" with authority above all government branches (AFP)

Attorney General Luisa Ortega, a Maduro loyalist who dramatically broke with him over setting up the assembly and other issues, warns that a "totalitarian one-man rule system" could be looming.

The next elections will be set by the Constituent Assembly. Whether the current electoral authorities' schedule, for example for state governors, will be respected, is its call.

The 2018 presidential election currently scheduled would be up in the air -- and possibly eliminated, opposition members fret.

"The Constituent Assembly is a desperate measure by a government that cannot schedule elections because it knows it is going to lose them," said Diego Moya-Ocampos, an analyst at IHS Market Country Risk in London.

Eight out of 10 Venezuelans say they do not support Maduro, Datanalysis pollsters have found.

While former foreign minister Rodriguez has said that wiping out all opposition isn't the goal here, others are doing different math. Maduro himself thundered at assembly number-two Freddy Guevara: "Your cell awaits."

Foro Penal (Criminal Forum) monitors say there are almost 500 political prisoners in the country of 30 million.

Maduro has said the assembly will bring stability amid economic collapse; he has not said how.

"There is greater conflict, investors pulling out and worse sanctions coming. The crisis we have seen so far is the tip of the iceberg," warned economist Luis Vicente Leon, who runs Datanalysis.