The toll of protest-related deaths has surpassed 100 in Venezuela, where months of anti-government demonstrations have led to a final 48-hour strike against President Nicolás Maduro’s socialist regime ahead of a fiercely contested election.
This latest strike, which began Wednesday and has continued on Thursday, is the second in less than a week to oppose the beleaguered leader’s authority, and five people have died in the resulting clashes. The crisis-torn nation heads to the polls on Sunday to elect members of the constitutional assembly, a new lawmaking super-body, in a vote adversaries claim is rigged in Maduro’s favor.
Maduro called for a national election to determine the makeup of the 545-person assembly in May. Venezuela’s existing constitution requires the president to hold a referendum so people can choose whether or not they want a constitutional assembly. But Maduro, aware that he would most likely lose in such a referendum, ordered the vote by decree. In June, after months of deadly backlash, he promised to eventually hold a plebiscite to accept or reject the redrafted constitution.
But the president has offered scant details on the process, and has dismissed his many opponents as “terrorists” as hostilities surge ahead of the election. His government is set to deploy more than 200,000 troops as voting takes place.
Maduro has boldly asserted that the move to redraft Venezuela’s constitution will “restore peace” in a country that has plunged into spiraling economic, political and social chaos.
Tensions flared in late March when the Supreme Court, which has backed the president and blocked attempts to impeach him, announced it would strip legislative powers from the opposition-controlled National Assembly, sparking immediate, violent clashes. The court reversed its decision days later, but protests have continued across the country and escalated after Maduro’s call for the election.
The president, whose approval rating lingers around a dismal 20 percent, was narrowly elected in 2013 after the death of his predecessor, Hugo Chávez. Maduro has managed to cling to power in the face of mounting protests and calls for his resignation.
Rewriting the constitution would allow Maduro’s administration to dissolve the opposition-controlled congress and, critics fear, possibly enable him to postpone the 2018 presidential election he seems sure to lose. Maduro has, however, vowed that “come rain, thunder or lightning in Venezuela,” there will be presidential elections next year.
Earlier this month, more than 7 million Venezuelans took part in a symbolic, opposition-organized referendum in which over 98 percent reportedly rejected their embattled leader’s proposals to amend the constitution. The opposition has vowed to boycott Sunday’s vote.
Venezuela’s political opposition is far from alone in objecting to Maduro’s planned constitutional amendments.
Last week, U.S. President Donald Trump slammed Maduro as a “bad leader” and aspiring “dictator.” He threatened to take “strong and swift economic actions” if Caracas proceeds to impose its constitutional assembly.
On Wednesday, the Trump administration sanctioned 13 individuals with ties to the Maduro regime, including past and present high-ranking members of the Venezuelan government and military, for “their role in undermining the democratic process and institutions in Venezuela.” The U.S. is still considering broader sanctions against Venezuela’s oil industry.
This week, members of the Organization of American States debated a declaration to intervene by demanding that Venezuela abandon its constitutional assembly election, but failed once again to reach the necessary consensus to take action. Venezuela announced in April that it would leave the OAS, claiming the organization posed a threat to its sovereignty.
Thousands of people have been arrested as the election looms closer. Humanitarian organizations have decried the Maduro government’s use of military courts to prosecute civilians and have accused Venezuelan security forces of killing demonstrators.
A massive anti-Maduro march is scheduled in Caracas on Friday ahead of the vote.