Why Venezuela voted, and why it matters

After four months of steady anti-government protests, clashes between citizens and armed forces, and increasingly dire shortages of food and medical supplies, the world watched last weekend as Venezuela stepped into uncharted waters. President Nicolás Maduro hosted a nationwide vote to form a Constituent Assembly granted nearly unlimited legal powers and slated to rewrite the Constitution. What does this mean for the future of Venezuela?

WHAT WERE VENEZUELANS VOTING FOR ON JULY 30?

Venezuelans were selecting delegates to serve on a Constituent Assembly. The 545 members were chosen from a pool of about 6,000 candidates to rewrite the country’s Constitution, drafted and passed under former President Hugo Chávez. Mr. Maduro’s wife, likely his son, and powerful ruling-party politicians were among those selected to serve on the Assembly, which is stacked with government sympathizers. Two-thirds of the delegates were chosen by voters from their region, while one-third were chosen to represent special groups, including indigenous communities and students. A poll suggests that 85 percent of Venezuelans oppose rewriting the Constitution.

WHY DOES THE CONSTITUENT ASSEMBLY MATTER?

The 1999 Constitution is a potent symbol of Chavismo and the Socialist project Mr. Chávez began, known as the Bolivarian Revolution. But now, the government says rewriting it will promote “reconciliation and peace” amid extreme polarization and simultaneous economic, political, and humanitarian crises.

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In critics’ eyes, the process of drafting a new Constitution is a final grab at power, allowing the government to potentially do away with what remains of the democratic system. The opposition boycotted the vote and many argue it should never have happened without first holding a public referendum of support.

And it’s not just the Constitution, referred to by Chávez as the most important text after the Bible, that could change. The Constituent Assembly has the power to dissolve state institutions, including the opposition-run National Assembly, creating large-scale change by decree. Opponents – who now go beyond the “usual suspects” in the opposition, to include former Chávez supporters – fear this marks the end of Venezuela’s democracy.

HOW DID THE VOTE GO?

Maduro called it a victory. But, despite months of sometimes violent protests, the vote marked the single deadliest day in Venezuela’s political…

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