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August 20, 2017
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Explainer: Maduro’s Constituent Assembly

Tensions are at breaking-point in Venezuela, where President Nicolás Maduro plans to rewrite the troubled nation’s Constitution, as the opposition intensifies its efforts to block the move. Critics say the move will effectively make the struggling country a dictatorship, with the president attempting to seize more power and limit that held by the opposition-controlled National Assembly. The Socialist Party (PSUV) says the move is needed to stabilise the country’s economic crisis and to stem off “imperialist” attempts to overthrow the government.

WHAT IS THE CONSTITUENT ASSEMBLY AND SUNDAY’S VOTE?

The government has called a national vote for this Sunday, July 30, to elect a 545-delegate “Constituent Assembly,” a two-part body of individuals who will redraft the Constitution, which was written by assembly in 1999 under late former president Hugo Chávez, a figure who the Socialists say founded the country’s “Bolivarian revolution.”

Sunday’s vote — which the opposition has said it will boycott rather than legitimise the process — will elect 364 members of the Constituent Assembly through local polls open to all registered voters, though ballots are likely to only be cast by pro-government voters. The remaining members of the Constituent Assembly will be elected by “sector representatives” from “social sectors,” deputies elected by various groups such as students, workers and teachers, most of whom will likely by controlled by the government.

The Constituent Assembly could dramatically reshape the country’s governance. In 1999, the current Constitution — which came after Chávez had won a referendum on whether to rewrite it — expanded the number of branches within the national government and consolidated the two houses of congress into a single body, the National Assembly. In contrast, Maduro has implemented his plans by decree.

It is unclear what changes Maduro plans to enact, but opposition members fear any branch of government that doesn’t fall in line with Maduro will be left powerless. At one point last month, Maduro hinted that he sought greater constitutional powers to prosecute opposition leaders for “treason against the motherland.”

The opposition fears that already-delayed regional elections, now set for December 2017, will be cancelled. Maduro’s party is likely to lose that vote, recent polls have shown, with the president’s approval rating just under 20 percent.

As a reaction to growing pressure last month, Maduro offered to hold a referendum at the end of the process on whether to adopt the new constitution.

The opposition has refused to participate in the process at all, arguing that the election is designed to guarantee a pro-government majority. They also see the special assembly as another means by which Maduro will further consolidate power. On July 16, a symbolic plebiscite organised by the opposition in areas of the country and outside its borders, more than seven million people voted against Maduro.

HOW DID WE GET HERE?

Oil-rich Venezuela was once one of Latin America’s most prosperous, but the country has been plunged into political and social turmoil matched only by plummetting economic output.

Venezuelans frustrated by food shortages, triple-digit inflation and a homicide rate that ranks among the highest in the world took to the streets again in early April after a controversial Supreme Court decision stripped the democratically elected opposition-controlled National Assembly of its remaining powers.

The decision was reversed amid international outcry but unleashed a wave of protests that has left more than 80 people dead and thousands more injured and detained.

On May 1, after more than a month of protests, Maduro announced he would push for a new consitution, saying it was the “only road to restore peace.”

WHAT DOES THE OPPOSITION WANT?

Protesters are demanding a new presidential election and want Maduro out of office. They have also called on the president to lift his ban on humanitarian aid so that needed food and medical supplies can reach Venezuelans. They also want any and all political prisoners to be released.

Maduro has refused to accept foreign aid, blamed the crisis on “imperialist” efforts to overthrow his government, and warned that allowing foreign humanitarian assistance could put the nation at risk of foreign military intervention.

Maduro has rejected calls for a new presidential election before the scheduled 2018 vote. Opposition members fear Maduro’s Constituent Assembly will reschedule or do away with a future presidential election entirely, leaving the president free to start afresh with a new term in office.

The opposition gained control of the National Assembly in the 2015 legislative election, but its efforts to legislate and improve the situation has continually been stymied by the government-stacked Supreme Court. The court nullified eight of the assembly’s laws between January and October 2016, after making just one such ruling in the previous 200 years, legal experts say.

Leaders of most key institutions, including the National Electoral Council, have remained firmly behind Maduro, as has the military.

One unexpected challenger who has emerged is Venezuela’s attorney general, Luisa Ortega Diaz. She rejected the contested March Supreme Court decision nullifying congress and has repeatedly denounced the bid to change the Constitution. The government has reacted by attempting to bypass Ortega entirely with new appointees to her office.

WILL THE MILITARY STEP IN?

Venezuela’s military has historically stepped in to end political disputes and the opposition has urged it to uphold the Constitution and stop Maduro’s rewrite from proceeding.

In late June, a rogue police pilot and budding action-movie star seemingly stole a helicopter and dropped grenades on the Supreme Court, calling for a rebellion against Maduro’s government. But there is little to indicate a revolt is underway and some doubt the veracity of the rogue policeman’s actions.

Chávez and Maduro spent years building relations with military leaders, rewarding them with money and powerful government jobs. More recently, Maduro has promoted some officials accused of acting violently against opposition members.

The head of the Armed Forces has reportedly endorsed the proposed Constituent Assembly, the government says.

— Herald with agencies

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