At least 10 people have died after violent protests broke out in Venezuela against the election of a new assembly.
The violence broke out after Venezuela’s National Electoral Council has said more than eight million people voted to grant President Nicolas Maduro’s ruling socialist party virtually unlimited powers with a constitutional assembly – a turnout more than double the estimates of both the government’s political opponents and independent experts.
Council president Tibisay Lucena announced just before midnight local time that turnout in Sunday’s vote was 41.53%, or 8,089,320 people.
But the count was met with mockery and anger from members of the opposition, who said they believed just 2-3 million people voted.
One well-respected independent analysis said 3.6 million appeared to have voted.
The electoral council’s vote counts in the past have traditionally been seen as reliable and generally accurate, but Sunday’s announcement appeared certain to escalate the polarisation and political conflict paralysing the country.
The US State Department condemned President Maduro’s government for holding a vote to elect a powerful National Constituent Assembly, calling it a step towards authoritarian rule.
But the Maduro government swore to continue its push for total political dominance of the once-prosperous OPEC nation, a move likely to trigger US sanctions and new rounds of the street fighting that has killed at least 122 and wounded nearly 2,000 since protests began in April.
Venezuela’s chief prosecutor’s office reported 10 deaths on Sunday in clashes between protesters and police across the country.
Seven police officers were wounded when an explosion went off as they drove past piles of rubbish that had been used to blockade a street in an opposition stronghold in eastern Caracas.
A growing list of nations including Argentina, Canada, Colombia, Mexico and the United States said they would not recognise Sunday’s vote – further straining ties to the already isolated nation.
Across the capital, dozens of polling stations were virtually empty, including many that have seen hours-long lines of thousands voting to keep the government in power over the last two decades.
By contrast, at the Poliedro sports and cultural complex in western Caracas, several thousand people waited about two hours to vote, many drawn from opposition-dominated neighbourhoods where polling stations were closed.
But at least three dozen other sites visited by The Associated Press had no more than a few hundred voters at any one time, with many virtually empty.
Despite the visibly low turnout, Diosdado Cabello, the ruling socialist party’s first vice president, proclaimed that there was a ‘record’ turnout that would surprise the opposition and called Sunday’s vote ‘a moral and ethical victory over the right’.
Opposition leaders had called for a boycott of the vote, declaring it rigged for the ruling party, and by late afternoon they were declaring the low turnout a resounding victory.
Organisers said preliminary results from observers placed in nearly every district indicated a small fraction of the turnout seen in previous elections had voted.
‘It’s very clear to us that the government has suffered a defeat today,’ said Julio Borges, president of the opposition-controlled but largely powerless National Assembly.
‘This vote brings us closer to the government leaving power.’
Mr Maduro called the vote for a constitutional assembly in May after a month of protests against his government, which has overseen Venezuela’s descent into a devastating crisis during its four years in power.
Thanks to plunging oil prices and widespread corruption and mismanagement, Venezuela’s inflation and homicide rates are among the world’s highest, and widespread shortages of food and medicine mean people are dying of preventable illnesses and rooting through rubbish to feed themselves.
The winners among the 5,500 ruling-party candidates running for 545 seats in the constituent assembly will have the task of rewriting the country’s constitution and will have powers above and beyond other state institutions, including the opposition-controlled congress.
Mr Maduro made clear in a televised address on Saturday that he intends to use the assembly not just to rewrite the country’s charter, but to govern without limitation.
Describing the vote as ‘the election of a power that’s above and beyond every other’, he said he wanted the assembly to strip opposition MPs and governors of constitutional immunity from prosecution – one of the few remaining checks on ruling party power.
Declaring the opposition ‘already has its prison cell waiting’, Mr Maduro added: ‘All the criminals will go to prison for the crimes they’ve committed.’
He said the new assembly would begin to govern within a week, with its first task in rewriting the constitution to be ‘a total transformation’ of the office of Venezuela’s chief prosecutor, a former government loyalist who has become the highest-ranking official to publicly split from the president.
‘People aren’t in agreement with this,’ said Daniel Ponza, a 33-year-old drywall contractor, as he watched a few dozen people outside a polling station in El Valle, a traditional stronghold of the ruling Chavista movement in western Caracas.
‘People are dying of hunger, looking for food in the trash. And I think this is just going to make things worse.’
The government was encouraging participation in Sunday’s vote with tactics that included offering social benefits like subsidised food to the poor and threatening state workers’ jobs if they did not vote.
‘I’m here because I’m hoping for housing,’ Luisa Marquez, a 46-year-old hairdresser, as she waited to vote in eastern Caracas.
The Trump administration has imposed successive rounds of sanctions on high-ranking members of Mr Maduro’s government, with the support of countries including Mexico, Colombia and Panama.
US vice president Mike Pence promised on Friday ‘strong and swift economic actions’ if the vote went ahead.
Before Sunday’s vote, the opposition organised a series of work stoppages as well as a July 16 protest vote that it said drew more than 7.5 million symbolic votes against the constitutional assembly.
Opposition leader Henrique Capriles called on Venezuelans to protest again on Monday.