Venezuela: What is Maduro's Constituent Assembly?

After months of protests and clashes, with more than 100 people killed, Venezuelans are being called on to choose the members of a new National Constituent Assembly that will be tasked with drafting a new constitution.

Sunday’s vote marks the second time Venezuela holds a Consituent Assembly.

In 1999, the then newly elected President Hugo Chavez and voters supported the initiative. 

The difference now is that Sunday’s election was ordered by decree, with no referendum indicating that a majority wants a change.

Venezuelans will answer one question: Who should represent you in the assembly? 

Anticipating possible violence, the government has banned protests.

But the opposition has called people to the streets.

“Extend the barricades until tomorrow and everybody go to the streets on Sunday to demand the transformation of Venezuela,” Freddy Guevara, an opposition congressman, said on Twitter. “This is a tough, conflictive time that we did not look for, but that will only hasten the fall of this government.”

So what does this process entail? Below, we answer key questions:

1. What is a National Constituent Assembly? 

An elected temporary parliament that has the mandate to draft or reform the constitution.

On July 30, Venezuelans will choose the members of this parliament.

President Maduro invoked article 347 of the Venezuelan Constitution, which reads as follows:

“The Venezuelan people are the depositary of the original constituent power. In the exercise of that power, it can convene a National Constituent Assembly with the purpose of transforming the state, creating a new legal system and drafting a new Constitution.”

The president has the power to do so, although he will not be able to object to the Constitution that results from it. 

In terms of changes, it is not clear yet what is coming. 

Maduro has talked about the Constituent Assembly as an initiative that will resolve political and economic challenges, but it is unclear what the reforms will be. 

Critics fear that the Constituent Assembly will try to override the National Assembly, the only government sector not controlled by Maduro’s party. 

READ MORE: Venezuela has reached the ‘zero hour’ – What’s next? 

2. Why did Maduro call this vote?

President Maduro called for the Assembly on May 1 amid a political crisis marked by a month of almost daily demonstrations. 

At an open air rally before thousands of supporters, Maduro signed a document formally establishing the terms for electing members of the constituent assembly.

The president announced his decision saying it was the “only road to restore peace”.

In a speech he said that he aimed to “let the sovereign people impose peace, harmony and true national dialogue”.

Maduro assured that the new constitution will be an “improvement” of the revolutionary plan of Chavez.

3. Who can elect and be elected?

There will be 545 elected delegates to the assembly, from more than 6,000 candidates.

From those, 364 will be chosen by local polls. The other 181 members will be elected by members of seven social sectors, including indigenous groups, poor farmers, students, and pensioners.

Those sectors have always shown strong support to Chavez and Maduro. 

The opposition is boycotting the election, so from the 6,000 people that are running for seats, they do not have any representation. 

Critics says the process has been distorted, because the president chose who could be listed in the constituent. That decision was not open to the public.

READ MORE: Venezuela’s worst economic crisis – What went wrong?

4. What do supporters say? 

They say they are willing to participate and hope the vote brings stability.

“We will participate in a process that the majority, accept, receive and are willing to participate in. On July 30, we will see the true support to the Bolivarian Revolution, and President Nicolas Maduro,” General Gabriel Oviedo, candidate to the Constituent, told Al Jazeera. 

“The constituent will continue, and with it the mechanisms will come so that each one responds to its illegal acts, it’s time to have justice, and to defend the motherland,” he added. 

Cilia Flores, Maduro’s wife and a candidate for the assembly, believes the move will bring peace and stability. “The National Assembly went crazy, and they thought they could overthrow President Maduro …. the people want peace, and this stability will be given to us by the Constituent ” she told local media.

“This has not been an imposed process. I support it. It is an instrument of  the state, something imposed is not submitted to a vote,” Rossana Melendez, an environmental manager, told Al Jazeera. 

5. What does the opposition say?

The opposition rejected the move from the start.

A Supreme Court magistrate, Luisa Ortega Diaz, said the assembly was “not the solution to the crisis” and called on Maduro to “think carefully” to avoid more bloodshed.

Jose Haro, a constitutional lawyer, said: “What happens if this Constituent Assembly is imposed, without having consulted the people, is that it [risks dismantling] the state that we have, the constitutional base that we have.

“It gives way to a situation of high voltage political conflict, which can lead to even greater confrontation. The day that Maduro summoned the Constituent Assembly, the number of killed in demonstrations was no more than 29. After he made the announcement, the number has tripled … If this goes ahead, Venezuela will enter a dark period.”

The opposition is demanding elections to remove Maduro from power. They blame him for an economic crisis that has caused shortages of food, medicine and basic supplies.

6. How long could the process take? 

Last time this happened, the process began on February 2, 1999 and finished with the publication of the Constitution in March, 2000.

The Constituent Assembly could last more than a year because referendums and elections must be convened to determine the constituents, who are likely to discuss for months the issues concerning the new Constitution.

This would allow the president to stay in power during the process, and could lead to a delay of the 2018 presidential election. 

7. What was achieved the first time this was done? 

The Constituent Assembly of 1999 made significant changes, including increasing the presidential term from five to six years; unifying the two chambers of the National Congress into a National Assembly, and changing the name of the country to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.

8. What happens next?

Pressure from the opposition is expected to grow. Maduro has warned that his government is “ready for any scenario”.

According to its decree, the National Constituent Assembly will be installed within 72 hours after the proclamation of the constituents.

President Maduro promised that before the new constitution is implemented, it would also be the subject of a referendum.

During the 1999 constituent assembly, Congress was shut down. This time, the Congress has said it will not cooperate.

Source: Al Jazeera News

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