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Venezuelans staying away from polling stations


Venezuelans staying away from polling stations

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CARACAS – Streets were desolate early Sunday with barricades in some areas as Venezuelans began voting for a constitutional super-body expected to hand sweeping powers to ruling Socialist Party officials and potentially extend their unpopular rule.

President Nicolas Maduro, widely disliked for overseeing an economic collapse during his four years in office, has promised the assembly will restore peace after months of opposition protests during which more than 115 people have been killed.

Opposition parties are boycotting what they call a rigged election while their sympathizers plan demonstrations across the country during the day – raising the prospect of violent clashes with tens of thousands of troops deployed to safeguard the vote.

Critics say the assembly will allow Maduro to dissolve the opposition-run Congress, delay future elections and rewrite electoral rules to prevent the socialists from being voted out of power in the once-prosperous South American nation.

Opposition leaders have vowed to step up protests in the wake of Sunday’s vote despite threats of a crackdown by Maduro’s government using the new Assembly’s sweeping powers.

“Even if they win today, this won’t last long,” said opposition supporter Berta Hernandez, a 60-year-old medic, in a wealthy Caracas district. “I’ll continue on the streets because, not long from now, this will come to an end.”

Amid government fears of low turnout, Venezuela’s 2.8 million state employees were under huge pressure to vote, including threats of dismissal.

Workers at state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela SA (PDVSA) received text messages asking them to send in their national identification number once they had voted, two sources said. They expressed fear the plan was to identify who had sat out the election.

The vote, which follows the postponement of regional elections and Maduro’s repeated refusal to heed decisions by Congress, has brought global condemnation.

The United States, which is the largest market for the OPEC nation’s oil, last week sanctioned 13 Socialist Party leaders, in part as a response to the election. President Donald Trump’s administration has vowed additional economic measures if the vote takes place.

Neighbouring Colombia says it will not recognise the results.

Polls suggest a large majority of Venezuelans oppose the assembly. The opposition says that more than 7 million voters – from a population of around 32 million – overwhelmingly rejected Maduro’s proposal in an unofficial referendum it organised this month.

Voters will not have the choice of whether to proceed with the assembly, only to select its 545 members from more than 6 100 candidates representing a broad array of Socialist Party allies.

In the capital of Barinas, the home state of former President Hugo Chavez, turnout appeared low. (Reuters)