Tensions are near breaking point in Venezuela ahead of a vote on 30 July which the beleaguered president, Nicolás Maduro, says will stabilize the flailing country – home to the world’s largest oil reserves – and which the opposition describes as a bald-faced power grab.
Maduro has convened a national vote to elect a Constituent Assembly to redraft the country’s constitution. 364 members of the assembly will be chosen by local polls open to all registered voters. The remaining 181 members will be elected by members of seven social sectors, including pensioners, indigenous groups, businesspeople, peasants and students.
The opposition has vowed to boycott the 30 July vote, which means voter turnout will be exclusively pro-government – and likely very low, given that Maduro’s approval rating hovers around 20%.
The current constitution was written by an assembly called in 1999 by Maduro’s predecessor and political father, Hugo Chávez. But Chavez made sure he had popular support for the rewrite, by calling a referendum first. This time around, Maduro ordered the constituent assembly by decree.
On 16 July, a symbolic plebiscite against Maduro’s initiative held by the opposition drew more than seven million people – more than those who voted for Maduro in the 2014 election.
Amid mounting pressure, Maduro vowed last month to hold a popular vote at the end of the process to approve or reject the new constitution.
But neither Maduro nor the Venezuelan Electoral Council have specified how long this process will last, or what will happen with the existing legislative power – currently controlled by opposition forces – during the process.
Critics have warned that the constituent assembly is an attempt to override the existing parliament, setting in place a Cuban-style Congress that would serve to rubber-stamp the executive’s orders.
Venezuela has been rocked by nonstop street protests since the government’s attempt in late March to strip Congress of its right to legislate. Although the move was partially reversed, demonstrations have continued against an increasingly authoritarian government widely blamed for the country’s tanking economy and soaring crime rate.
On 1 May, a month into the protests, the beleaguered president announced his decision to call for a new constitution saying it was the "only road to restore peace” in the country. But violence and state repression have escalated since, with more than 100 people killed and hundreds arrested.
The coalition of opposition forces known as the Democratic Unity Roundtable (known by its Spanish initials, MUD) rejected the move from the start. But criticism extends far beyond the political opposition. According to one pollster, eight out of 10 Venezuelans oppose a new constitution and would prefer general elections.
Dissent is also coming from within chavista ranks: former loyalists accuse Maduro of betraying his predecessor’s political legacy. Among the most high profile dissenters is the country’s general attorney, Luisa Ortega, who has since come under fierce attack by the supreme court, which is now threatening to remove her from her post.
Pressure is set to rise after the MUD called a two-day national strike for Wednesday and Thursday, and then mass protests dubbed the "taking of Caracas” on Friday.
At the weekend, Maduro again described his opponents as "terrorists” and warned that he and his government were "ready for any scenario”.
It remains possible that the president will back down in the face of domestic and international pressure. But if he goes ahead with his plan, there is a chance that Chavismo will soon be entering a new – more authoritarian – phase.
Maduro has been very vague about the scope of the new constitution – prompting fears that this is simply a move to tighten the government’s hold on power rather than to solve the country’s many problems.
Following a previous national 24-hour strike earlier this month, Maduro threatened to jail two high profile opposition leaders for "treason to the motherland” and said one of the aims of the new constitution would be to prosecute those who sought to destabilize the country.
According to human rights groups there are currently more than 100 political prisoners behind bars; during the three months of protests more than 1,000 people have been jailed with close to 400 civilians being tried in military tribunals.
During the 1999 constituent assembly, Congress was shut down while the assembly members debated for over six months. This time around, the opposition-led Congress has said it will not give way to the constituent assembly and has vowed to swear in a parallel judicial branch.
The next presidential elections – which Maduro seems likely to lose – are currently scheduled to be held in 2018, but it is unclear whether this would remain the case under a new constitution. Regional elections due in December of last year have been rescheduled for the end of this year – but that too could be changed under the new constitution.