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Why democracy itself is on the ballot in Venezuela

The country is gearing up for an election unlike any it’s faced before.

Venezuela is gearing up for an election unlike any it’s faced before.

Venezuelans will head to the polls on Sunday to elect members of a “constituent assembly” — a controversial new governing body that will have carte blanche to rewrite the country’s constitution. President Nicolas Maduro says that a new constitution is the “only road to restore peace” in the crisis-racked country, which is nearing economic collapse.

But the country’s opposition movement, which has staged raucous street protests for months that have resulted in more than 100 deaths and thousands of arrests, counters that the move is nothing more than a blatant power grab meant to give Maduro dictatorial powers.

The new body is virtually guaranteed to be heavily pro-Maduro — the opposition outright rejects the legitimacy of Maduro’s call for the assembly altogether and is boycotting polls on Sunday. Which means that we will in all likelihood see the formation of an assembly that will attempt to give Maduro more power than ever before by doing things like dissolving the opposition-controlled legislative branch.

That’s raising major alarm bells in Washington. On Wednesday, the Trump administration slapped sanctions on 13 Venezuelan officials for their role in “undermining democracy” in the country and warned that anyone elected to the constituent assembly could be targeted by future sanctions.

Maduro has promised to hold a referendum on the new constitution. For some, that pledge suggests that this new assembly won’t really be the authoritarian power grab critics anticipate, since it has to get the sign-off from most of society in that vote. “This has to be approved by a majority — it therefore can’t be a radical document,” George Ciccariello-Maher, a scholar of Venezuela at Drexel University, told me.

But others are skeptical that Maduro will follow through on that promise. “Maduro will postpone any election that the government can’t win,” says Alejandro Velasco, a historian of Latin America at New York University. After all, Maduro has continued to postpone gubernatorial elections originally slated for last December for that exact reason.

For now, the only thing that seems certain is that the massive protests that have been rocking Venezuela aren’t going away any time soon.

In anticipation of a weekend of unrest in the run-up to the vote, the government on Thursday announced a ban on all "National meetings and demonstrations, concentrations of people and any other similar act that may disturb or affect the normal development of the electoral process” to last from Friday through Tuesday. Violators could face prison terms of up to 10 years.

The opposition has vowed to go ahead with a mass protest on Friday anyway.

This is uncharted territory for Venezuela

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This has all happened before, but the context was very different. In 1999, Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chavez — the socialist firebrand who transformed modern Venezuelan politics — also convened a constituent assembly to rewrite Venezuela’s constitution.

But he held a referendum before calling for a constituent assembly vote, to ensure there was popular backing for the idea of changing the constitution — and there was. More than 80 percent of Venezuelans backed the proposal.

Maduro, on the other hand, didn’t bother holding a referendum to gauge popular support for the formation of the constituent assembly, preferring instead to go straight to the vote to create the assembly itself. He knew that the referendum was bound to fail in light of his extreme unpopularity.

That alone has the opposition infuriated and calling the constituent assembly an illegitimate move. At the moment, there’s a fierce debate going on in Venezuela over the article in the constitution that allows the president to call for a constituent assembly. But we’re well beyond debates at this point — Sunday’s vote is on, and the whole world is watching.

Sunday’s vote has been specially designed to legitimize Maduro’s power

One striking feature of Sunday’s vote is that it involves a brand new electoral system — one that Maduro’s government has deliberately designed to favor itself.

Here’s how: Two-thirds of the constituent assembly will be composed of members who are elected on the municipal level — one seat per municipality in Venezuela, roughly speaking. But municipalities are not designed to account for sharp differences in population, and most of them are rural. And rural areas are exactly where Maduro is most popular. In other words, the electoral system doesn’t register the popular vote and systematically stacks votes in favor of Maduro.

The last third of the assembly will be voted in by specific categories of people — students, pensioners, indigenous groups, and so on. The issue here is that it’s unprecedented and confusing — you have to look online to see what sector you fall into, and some of the population hasn’t even been assigned a category.

“Some of the population is not part of any sector! How this is legal is crazy to me!” Francisco Toro, editor of Caracas Chronicles, an opposition-friendly news and analysis site, told me.

Indeed, critics of Maduro say that all of this is consistent with the reason he’s holding the vote in the first place: to catch the opposition off guard, mobilize his base and consolidate power.

Back in late March, the Supreme Court — which is pro-Maduro — pulled off a radical move. It made a ruling that effectively dissolved the opposition-controlled legislative branch and took all of its power for themselves. The decision sparked mass protests and caused chaos on the streets.

Just days later it reversed its decision, but the damage was done. As Pedro Rosas noted in Vox in May, “Opposition leaders accused Maduro of trying to turn Venezuela into a dictatorship and said the court — nominally committed to enforcing the country’s constitution — had instead shredded the document by carrying out what amounted to a judicial coup.”

Since then, the opposition has led protests in the streets that have clashed violently with government authorities.

“Protests in the street are very consciously creating an atmosphere of ungovernability,” Ciccariello-Maher said.

Maduro’s reputation has suffered enormously, both domestically and internationally, due to these protests and his government’s crackdowns on them. In May, he announced this constituent assembly in order to try to stop the bleeding and regain a sense of credibility and authority in his country.

But that’s only polarized the country further. To put more heat on Maduro, the opposition held a non-binding referendum in July in which over 7 million Venezuelans voted to reject Maduro’s proposal for re-writing the constitution.

That number is a crucial one to remember when watching the results of Sunday’s vote. While some opposition sympathizers may vote and there will be some ni-ni (neither-nor) voters, generally speaking the voter turnout will be assumed to be a proxy for Maduro’s support. The more people who turn out, the more legitimate Maduro and his bid to create a constituent assembly will look.

Velasco estimates that voter turnout on Sunday could be between 5 and 5.2 million people — significantly less than the roughly 7.2 million that the opposition turned out through their referendum.

If Sunday’s turnout is in fact that low, the opposition would be even further emboldened. It would rightly be able to claim that there’s more popular opposition to the constituent assembly than support for it — especially in light of the fact that Maduro has used strong-arm tactics to force public sector workers to go to the polls Sunday.

The opposition will be able to use any number lower than their 7.2 million as leverage. It will gain fuel for protests and garner more international support and likely encourage more sanctions from the US against the Maduro government. And it would have a stronger hand in secret negotiations between Maduro and the opposition that figures like former Spanish prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero have been mediating.

Maduro’s bold move to regain control of his country could end up hurting him more than helping him.