Venezuela opposition sets new showdown for assembly's inauguration
By AFP | Published: 04th August 2017 01:14 AM |
CARACAS: Venezuela's opposition is readying a new showdown with President Nicolas Maduro on Friday, rescheduling a massive protest to coincide with his inauguration of a powerful new assembly set to replace congress.
Maduro faces mounting accusations at home and abroad of trampling on democracy with his "Constituent Assembly," elected Sunday in a vote boycotted by the opposition and allegedly marred by fraud.
The 545-member assembly -- whose members include Maduro's wife and son -- was initially due to start work on Thursday. The opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), which holds a large majority in congress, had called for a major protest in Caracas on the same day.
But the leftist leader rescheduled the inauguration to Friday, vowing the assembly would open "in peace and calm." His opponents, too, then pushed back their protest, calling on Venezuelans to "defend the constitution" that the new body will rewrite.
Venezuela is in the grips of four months of violent protests that have left more than 125 people dead as opposition demonstrators armed with stones and Molotov cocktails battle the security forces and armed motorcycle gangs of Maduro supporters.
Despite the protests and international condemnation, Maduro insists the new assembly is the solution to a drawn-out economic and political crisis gripping Venezuela, whose 18-year-old, oil-fuelled socialist economic model has been driven to the brink of collapse by a plunge in global crude prices.
Sunday's vote brought the crisis to a boiling point, drawing international condemnation.
The United States imposed direct sanctions on Maduro, calling him a "dictator," while the European Union joined the US, Mexico, Colombia and Argentina in saying it would not recognise the new assembly.
In the latest attack on the election, Attorney General Luisa Ortega, one of Maduro's most outspoken critics, opened an investigation into what she called scandalous electoral fraud.
The allegation came from a British technology firm hired to handle the vote, Smartmatic. It says the official figures from the election were tampered with to make turnout appear greater than it was.
Ortega said the firm's assessment was just "one more element of the fraudulent, illegal and unconstitutional process."
Maduro denied the accusation, dismissing it as a "reaction by the international enemy."
- 'No doubt' turnout manipulated -
Smartmatic chief executive Antonio Mugica said the firm had concluded "without any doubt" that turnout was manipulated.
"We estimate the difference between the actual participation and the one announced by authorities is at least one million votes," he said.
Venezuela's pro-government electoral authority had claimed more than eight million voters took part -- 40 percent of the electorate.
The opposition says turnout was closer to 3.5 million, mostly state employees fearful for their jobs.
Significantly, the opposition had held an unofficial referendum on July 16 in which it said 7.6 million Venezuelans voted against the new assembly -- just under the level of support the government claimed on Sunday.
More than 70 percent of Venezuelans oppose the new assembly, according to polling firm Datanalisis.
Because of an opposition boycott, it was a foregone conclusion that followers and allies of Maduro's Socialist Party would fill all the Constituent Assembly posts. So the turnout figure was the key gauge of public support.
- Adios, Chavez constitution -
Maduro moved swiftly to consolidate his authority after the election.
Two prominent opposition leaders were hustled off to jail in the middle of the night by armed members of the Venezuelan intelligence services.
Security forces and pro-government motorbike gangs actively stamped out public signs of dissent.
Delcy Rodriguez, a former foreign minister who is now part of the new body, said the Constituent Assembly will kick the lawmakers out of the legislative palace, take it over and "never leave."
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has urged Maduro's government to "lower tensions," while the European Union says it is "ready to gradually step up" action on Venezuela if the situation deteriorates further.
Faced with mounting international outcry, Maduro on Wednesday named a new foreign minister to fill the newly elected Rodriguez's shoes: former vice president Jorge Arreaza.
Arreaza is married to the eldest daughter of late president Hugo Chavez, Maduro's mentor, the father of Venezuela's socialist "revolution," and the architect of the 1999 constitution the new assembly will rewrite.