Venezuela: Bloody Election Tightens Maduro's Grip on Power, But for How Much Longer?

At least nine people were killed in Venezuela in just 24 hours, in violent protests against President Nicolas Maduro's call to elect a constituent assembly to change the country's constitution and balance of power.

The vote for a new legislative body took place on Sunday, four months after the Maduro-appointed Venezuelan Supreme Court attempted to take power away from the National Assembly, the country's legislative body in which the opposition held a majority.

While the court has since reversed its decision, the move sparked a wave of nationwide protests—at least 5,436 and counting, the highest number since 2014. Around 120 people have died so far, while Maduro continued to push for a temporary parliament.

venezuela infographic
More than 5,000 protests have taken place in Venezuela since the start of 2017. In the last four months of protest, at least 123 people were killed. Newsweek

According to the country's elections authority, more than 8 million people cast a ballot on Sunday. However, the opposition to Maduro estimated that only 2.4 million people went to the polls, and suggested that most of them were civil servants who were forced to vote.

"It's true, it is not an electoral fraud. It wasn't any choice. It was a criminal farce," leading opposition politician Maria Corina Machado wrote on Twitter on Monday, commenting on the vote.

In a statement, the U.S. State Department condemned the election and the use of violence to repress the protests. "Millions of Venezuelans overwhelmingly expressed—in a loud and clear voice—their rejection of a National Constituent Assembly designed to weaken democracy in Venezuela," it read. "We express our condolences to all Venezuelans who have lost loved ones. We condemn the use of violence by the Maduro regime against citizens exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly."

The White House is also considering imposing sanctions on the Venezuelan oil sector, the country's primary economic resource. Maduro mocked the U.S.'s reaction in an address to his supporters on Sunday night. "Why the hell should we care what Trump says?" he said, quoted in Reuters. "We care about what the sovereign people of Venezuela say."

But even if 8 million votes were cast, when compared to the nearly 14 million people who voted for the National Assembly in the most recent elections in 2015, Maduro's constituent assembly fails to achieve the same degree of popular legitimacy, as support for the president continues to wane.

Maduro (un)popularity
During the 2014 protests, the country's opinion of President Maduro was polarized. Support for him has since plummeted. Newsweek

Diego Moya-Ocampos, a senior analyst for the Americas at IHS Markit, believes this will ultimately spell the end of the regime, as the absence of free and fair elections will result in more protests, more international isolation and an escalating economic cost for the country. "The national constituent assembly, which is so opposed by the population, will lead to Maduro and the ruling party's downfall within the framework of two years," he tells Newsweek.

In the meantime, however, the protests continue. In the past four months, at least one person a day has been killed in ongoing protests in Venezuela. A 19-year-old became the first casualty when he was shot in the chest during a protest on April 6, and the death toll has since climbed to at least 123, most of them young people or teenagers.

Venezuela Protests vote
In Caracas, an antigovernment activist shows an ID card and two 9mm bullets seized by a presumed security forces infiltrator during a protest against the election of a constituent assembly, proposed by Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, on July 30. Deadly violence erupted around the controversial vote, with a candidate to the all-powerful body being elected shot dead, and troops firing weapons to clear protesters in Caracas and elsewhere. Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty Images

"These are the people who are engaging in antigovernment protests, and they see a country where there is no future; they've never been able to participate in [a] free and fair election, and they are attracted by the idea of voting and deciding for themselves," Moya-Ocampos said.

"They have been confronted by security forces in quite a brutal way—arbitrary detentions, very well-documented case of torture, live ammunition," he added.