Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro declared victory on Monday in the elections for a new Constituent Assembly that would rewrite the constitution and virtually give him unlimited power.
The opposition had boycotted the elections, which were strongly condemned by the international community.
In a speech to hundreds of supporters in central Caracas, Maduro hailed it as a win.
“We have a Constituent Assembly,” he said.
“It is the biggest vote the revolution has ever scored in its 18-year history,” he said, referring to the year his late mentor, Hugo Chavez, came to power.
Protesters attacked polling stations and barricaded streets around the country, drawing a bloody response from security forces, who opened fire with live ammunition in some cases.
Despite the boycott, National Electoral Council President Tibisay Lucena– one of 13 Maduro allies already hit by US sanctions — announced just before midnight that turnout in Sunday’s vote was 41.53 percent, or 8,089,320 people. Members of the opposition said they believed between 2 million and 3 million people voted and one well-respected independent analysis put the number at 3.6 million.
The socialist president is gambling his four-year rule on the 545-member assembly, which will be empowered to dissolve the opposition-controlled congress and rewrite the constitution.
But the unrest fueled fears that his insistence on convening the assembly — despite months of demonstrations — would only plunge the country deeper into chaos.
The opposition said the vote was a fraud.
Senior opposition leader Henrique Capriles called on Venezuelans to continue defying the deeply unpopular Maduro with new protests against the election and the “massacre” he said accompanied it.
“We do not recognize this fraudulent process,” he said, calling for nationwide marches Monday and a mass protest in Caracas Wednesday, the day the new assembly is due to be installed.
“If it wasn’t a tragedy … if it didn’t mean more crisis, the electoral council’s number would almost make you laugh,” opposition leader Freddy Guevara said on Twitter. Maduro has threatened that one of the constitutional assembly’s first acts would be jailing Guevara for inciting violence.
Maduro has decreed a ban on protests during and after the vote, threatening prison terms of up to 10 years.
There was blistering international condemnation of the vote, led by Washington.
“The United States condemns the elections… for the National Constituent Assembly, which is designed to replace the legitimately elected National Assembly and undermine the Venezuelan people’s right to self-determination,” US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement.
It threatened further “strong and swift” sanctions on Maduro’s government. It did not say whether it would sanction Venezuelan oil imports, a measure with the potential to destabilize Maduro’s government and deepen the country’s humanitarian crisis.
The US envoy to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, condemned the vote as a “sham” — a word also used by Britain’s junior foreign minister, Alan Duncan, and many experts.
The election was also condemned by the European Union, Canada and Latin American powers including Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and Mexico.
Maduro said he had received congratulations from the governments of Cuba, Bolivia and Nicaragua, among others.
Prosecutors said 10 people were killed in violence around the vote, bringing the death toll in four months of protests to some 120 people.
Those killed included a candidate for the new assembly, a regional opposition leader, two teenage protesters and a soldier in the western state of Tachira, which saw some of the worst violence.
According to polling firm Datanalisis, more than 70 percent of Venezuelans oppose the idea of the new assembly — and 80 percent reject Maduro’s leadership.
The number of Venezuelans living abroad has soared as the once-booming oil producer has descended into a devastating economic crisis marked by shortages, runaway inflation, riots and looting.
Maduro made clear in a televised address 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,” Maduro said he wants the assembly to strip opposition lawmakers 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,” 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.
“The vote means the end of any trace of democratic rule. Maduro’s blatant power grab removes any ambiguity about whether Venezuela is a democracy,” said Michael Shifter, head of the Inter-American Dialogue research center.
Latin America specialist Phil Gunson, senior analyst at Crisis Group, called the vote “the definitive break with what remains of representative democracy in Venezuela.”
“It will accelerate the longer-term trend towards economic, social and political collapse unless those in a position to change course do so, and begin to negotiate a restoration of democracy and economic viability,” he said.