Tensions high as Venezuela goes to the polls

Violence is expected to flare in Venezuela as people cast their ballots in an unofficial vote to test the popularity of President Maduro’s plans to rewrite the constitution.

Nicolas Maduro’s push to create a Constituent Assembly that will rewrite the country’s laws and dismiss elected representatives is seen by the opposition as a strategy to keep him in power and gather dictatorial powers.

Supporters of President Maduro will boycott the symbolic referendum on Sunday, while the opposition has pledged to stay away from the official constitution vote in two weeks’ time.

Street battles between police and anti-government protesters have killed nearly 100 people and injured 1,500 since April.

Food and medicine shortages have blighted the country for months.

President Nicolas Maduro delivers a speech in Caracas
President Maduro is unpopular with many, but has the support of the military

Protesters blame Mr Maduro for the country’s economic crisis, while he insists the chaos is the result of a US-backed capitalist conspiracy by the opposition.

While the President is deeply unpopular with many, he has support from poorer areas of the country and crucially the backing of the military.

Opposition leader Maria Corina Machado believes the vote will “not only reject the Constituent Assembly, but will give a mandate for a change of the regime, the end of the dictatorship and the start of a transition with a government of national unity”.

Mr Maduro has downplayed the vote, describing it as an “internal consultation by the opposition parties” with no electoral legitimacy.

The vote is being held in 2,000 polling stations across the country, and in 80 countries for Venezuelans abroad, with six to eight million people expected to turn out, according to the UN Human Rights Office.

Venezuelan opposition Maria Corina Machado at a protest march in May
Venezuelan opposition leader Maria Corina Machado at a protest march in May

It will be observed by former Latin America presidents and electoral experts from various countries.

Earlier this month, President Maduro’s supporters attacked the Venezuelan National Assembly – the only state institution still nominally controlled by the opposition.

Seven politicians were injured and 350 people were trapped in the building during a nine-hour siege.

On the opposition side, Venezuelan police officer and film star Oscar Perez boarded a helicopter last month to drop four grenades on the supreme court before opening fire on the interior ministry, in a protest against what he called a “tyrannical” government.

Perez then released a video urging the security forces to turn on Mr Maduro.

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