A parliamentary candidate and an opposition activist were among five people killed on Sunday as President Nicolas Maduro defied international pressure and internal strife to hold a controversial election.
Mr Maduro summoned conflict-weary Venezuela to the polls on Sunday to vote in 545 members of a new constituent assembly which his supporters claim will end months of violence, but his detractors say ushers in a dictatorship.
On the eve of the vote Mr Maduro appeared on state television and did not even attempt to downplay the power grab he was orchestrating.
He described the vote as “the election of a power that’s above and beyond every other.”
He added: “It’s the super power!”
The assembly will have powers to rewrite the country’s 1999 constitution. Mr Maduro said he wants the assembly to strip opposition legislators of their constitutional immunity from prosecution, and carry out “a total transformation” of the office of the chief prosecutor – a former loyalist, who has now become fiercely critical of the government.
“The right wing already has its prison cell waiting,” said Mr Maduro. “All the criminals will go to prison for the crimes they’ve committed.”
President Donald Trump last week imposed sanctions on 13 senior members of Mr Maduro’s regime, and his administration has threatened economic retaliation for going ahead with the vote. That could include halting Venezuela’s sale of oil to the US, which would potentially bankrupt the country.
Luis Vicente Leon, head of the Datanalisis polling company, said the constituent assembly was being formed because the uncharismatic Mr Maduro – whose term is meant to finish next year – “can’t win elections.”
Mr Maduro, a former bus driver, voted before dawn on Sunday, casting his ballot in a polling station a few hundred feet from a church where, earlier this month, a 61-year-old nurse was shot dead by men accused of being pro-government paramilitaries.
Over 100 people have died since April 1, as protests against Mr Maduro’s government have paralysed vast chunks of the country – aggravating shortages of essential goods and highlighting the humanitarian crisis.
In the early hours of Sunday a 39-year-old lawyer running for election to the assembly, Jose Felix Pineda, was murdered by gunmen who stormed into his home in the southeastern town of Ciudad Bolivar.
Ricardo Campos, leader of the youth wing of the opposition Accion…