The opposition in Venezuela denounced on Tuesday President Nicolas Maduro’s decision on Monday to write a new constitution.
The opposition was blocking streets on Tuesday to decry the decision to create a new super-body known as a “constituent assembly,” a move they say is a veiled attempt to cling to power by avoiding elections.
After a month of near-daily protests demanding early general elections, Maduro on Monday announced a new popular assembly with the ability to rewrite the constitution.
His government said that the opposition is promoting street violence and refusing dialogue, so it has no choice but to shake up Venezuela’s power structure to bring peace to the oil producer.
Maduro’s foes counter that Maduro, a former bus driver they say has turned into a dictator, is in fact planning to staff the new assembly with supporters and avoid elections he would likely lose amid a crushing recession and raging inflation.
Regional elections slated for last year have yet to be called and a presidential election is due for next year.
When asked about elections in an interview on state television Tuesday, the Socialist Party official in charge of the constituent assembly said the electoral schedule would be respected but also suggested the current political turmoil was working against setting a quick date.
“One of the aims of the constituent assembly is to seek the conditions of stability to be able to go to those electoral processes,” said Elias Jaua.
“Those conditions of normality do not exist,” he added, citing protests and institutional clashes between the opposition-led National Assembly and authorities.
Maduro’s critics fear the new body will further sideline the current opposition-led legislature and pave the way for undemocratic changes to the constitution, furthering what they say has been a lurch into dictatorship.
The controversial decision will likely swell anti-government protests, already the biggest since 2014, as they seek to end the socialists’ 18-year rule started under late leader Hugo Chavez.
“This is not a constituent assembly, it’s the dissolution of the republic,” said opposition lawmaker Freddy Guevara. “A message to Chavismo: It’s time to unite to save Venezuela from Maduro.”
Since anti-Maduro unrest began in early April, some 29 people have been killed, more than 400 people have been injured and hundreds more arrested.
Maduro was vague in a televised speech Monday evening about how members would be chosen for a citizen assembly to produce a new charter. He hinted some would selected by voters, but many observers expect the government to give itself the power to pick a majority of delegates to the convention.
“This will be a citizens assembly made up of workers,” the president said. “The day has come brothers. Don’t fail me now. Don’t fail (Hugo) Chavez and don’t fail your motherland.”
If the constitutional process goes forward, opposition leaders will need to focus on getting at least some sympathetic figures included in the assembly. That could distract them from organizing the near daily street protests that they have managed to keep up for four weeks, political analyst Luis Vicente Leon said.
Venezuela’s constitution was last rewritten in 1999, early in the 14-year presidency of the late Chavez, who began the socialist transformation of the oil-exporting nation.
The president of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, Julio Borges, called a constitutional assembly a “giant fraud” by Maduro and his allies designed to keep them in power. Borges said it would deny Venezuelans the right to express their views at the ballot box, and he urged the military to prevent the “coup” by Maduro.