Venezuela votes on constituent assembly amid protests

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A barricade set up by activists during a protest called by the opposition, in Caracas on July 29, 2017Image source, AFP
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Barricades have been set up by anti-government protesters across the capital, Caracas

Voting is under way in Venezuela to elect a new assembly with powers to rewrite the constitution.

The opposition is boycotting the vote which it says is a power grab by President Nicolás Maduro.

The government says the constituent assembly is the only way to bring peace back to the country after months of violent protests.

On the eve of the vote, protesters blocked roads in the capital Caracas in defiance of a ban on demonstrations.

In a speech broadcast on TV, President Maduro predicted a "big victory", calling the vote "the most important election held in Venezuela's political system".

However, electoral council chief Tibisay Lucena acknowledged that some voting machines had been attacked and burned in parts of the country.

Image source, AFP
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The government expects millions to vote in the controversial elections

Oil-rich Venezuela is gripped by a political crisis with soaring inflation and daily food shortages. Violent demonstrations since April have left more than 100 people dead.

Many residents in Caracas were stocking up on essential items on Saturday in case unrest left shops closed into Monday, correspondents said.

At the scene: Two different stories

Katy Watson, BBC South America correspondent, Caracas

Plaza Bolivar, just around the corner from Congress, was bustling on Saturday - people setting marquees up, organisers attending meetings and even a government press conference reaffirming their confidence in Sunday's vote. Supporters chanted "Long Live the Constituent Assembly" as politicians shook hands with passers-by who wanted to say hello.

But drive 15 minutes to the neighbourhood of Chacao on the eastern side of the city and the government won't find much support there. Lots of streets are blockaded, people are putting barbed wire across the lanes or wooden pallets, fences or drain covers - anything to disrupt the traffic and make the point that people want change.

Opposition leaders say they'll continue their campaign until President Maduro is out and they're calling for people to go out on to the streets on Sunday, despite the ban on protests.

More than 6,000 candidates are standing for the 545-member constituent assembly but none are from the opposition.

The new body will have the power to bypass the National Assembly, currently controlled by an alliance of opposition parties.

Turnout and the number of spoilt ballots will be watched closely as an indication of how much support there is for the assembly.

A poll by Datanalisis suggested that over 70% of Venezuelans were opposed to the new assembly - but the government has said it is confident that millions will take part in the vote.

Neighbouring Colombia has said it will not recognise the constituent assembly. France, Spain, the US and the EU have also urged the government to cancel the vote, but to no avail.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
More than 6,000 candidates are standing - but none are from the opposition

Opposition leaders urged their supporters to erect barricades on Sunday and pledged to fight on even after the election.

"Starting on Monday we will have new actions, tactics and strategies to fit the new reality we will be living in," said Freddy Guevara of the opposition MUD alliance, without giving details.

"This is a tough, conflictive time that we did not look for but that will only hasten the fall of this government."

In an effort to create calm ahead of the vote, the government imposed a ban on protests and threatened jail terms for anyone flouting it.

Amid fears of worsening unrest, families of US diplomats have been ordered to leave Venezuela and several foreign airlines have suspended flights.

Why is Venezuela in crisis?

Image source, EPA
  • More than 100 people have been killed in clashes stemming from the political conflict
  • The deep economic crisis is made worse by the falling price of oil, which accounts for about 95% of Venezuela's export revenues and was used to finance some of the government's social programmes. Forced to make cuts, President Nicolás Maduro has seen his support fall among core backers
  • Basic necessities, such as medicine and food, are in short supply
  • The opposition accuses Mr Maduro of mismanaging the economy and eroding democratic institutions
  • In March, the Supreme Court decided it would take over the National Assembly. The decision was reversed, but Mr Maduro was accused by opponents of trying to stage a coup. That sparked almost daily protests calling for his resignation