Ahead of vote, Venezuelans protest expanding presidential power

HARI SREENIVASAN, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR:  Tomorrow, Venezuela holds an election for a new national assembly that could rewrite its constitution.  Parties that oppose beleaguered President Nicolas Maduro are boycotting the vote, because they say it's a scheme by Maduro to expand his executive powers.

Maduro's socialist party has presided over a severe economic downturn marked by triple-digit inflation and scarce supplies of food and medicine.  This, as Venezuela's most important export, oil production, continues to decline.

For more on the controversial vote, I'm joined via Skype by "Reuters" reporter Brian Ellsworth from the Venezuelan capital of Caracas.

Brian, we are almost talking about the vote as a matter of course, here, tomorrow.  We know the outcome, because the opposition's not putting up any candidates.

BRIAN ELLSWORTH, REPORTER, REUTERS:  Yes, that's right.  In effect, the vote will take place tomorrow, and the opposition parties are not participating, which means that this 540-seat assembly will go entirely to allies of the socialist party.  We're likely to see next week, at some point, there will likely be some divisions that will emerge, different groups sort of seeking to control leadership of the institution.  But as you say, yes, there is no opposition participation, so there isn't a lot of suspense as to who will win.

SREENIVASAN:  Well, for people who don't follow the internal politics of Venezuela, what does this– what's the power that this national assembly will actually have?

ELLSWORTH:  Well, the constitution has one article that gives very vague description of what this body does.  And it says almost nothing, other than the fact that it can rewrite the constitution, and it cannot be challenged or overruled by any other government agency, which means that neither the courts, nor any executive branch powers, or anyone else, can tell this assembly not to do something.

Last time this was done was in 1999, there was a very clear mandate to rewrite the constitution.  Now, the constitution already gives quite a bit of generous executive power to the president, but they could, for example, dissolve the opposition-run congress.  They could fire the prosecutor, the chief prosecutor, who has been increasingly critical of the Maduro government.

So, it effectively creates a super body, that will have unlimited powers, with very unclear consequences as to what that would mean.

SREENIVASAN:  So, this could actually keep Maduro in power indefinitely, kind of sliding away from democracy and toward dictatorship.

ELLSWORTH:  We don't know what they would actually do.  But the current electoral schedule has Maduro's term ending in early 2019, and the next elections taking place in late 2018.  So, one of the things that they could do is not only alter the time frame for when the elections would happen, but they could also alter the way the actual votes are taking place, which, if you note, in this election, these are being– these seats are being distributed by municipality, which basically over-represents the rural areas, and in effect, over-represents the government.  Which was the main opposition argument for saying, we're not going to participate in this.

So, they could do similar things, in order to juggle the basic electoral functioning, in an environment in which the socialist party basically cannot win an election, due to extreme economic crisis.

SREENIVASAN:  Well, how do the countries in the neighborhood — how does the United States weigh in on this?

ELLSWORTH:  The United States has already sanctioned — last week announced sanctions against 13 high-ranking socialist party officials.  And they have said more swift sanctions are on the way if this vote goes through.  It's not immediately evident what those sanctions would be, but it could involve blocking the sale of Venezuelan oil to the United States, or financial sanctions that would prevent Venezuela from collecting on the oil that it sells.

SREENIVASAN:  Even after this vote tomorrow, is the condition of life likely to get any better for the people of Venezuela that have been suffering over the past two months, that we've been chronicling?

ELLSWORTH:  This is another of the opposition's arguments against the assembly, is that the primary concern of any Venezuelan that you speak to on the street today is that there isn't food, there isn't medicine, and prices are skyrocketing.  The assembly, as proposed, makes no evident — does nothing, in effect, to change any of that.

The reforms that they need to do, which will be painful to change this from a sort of socialist, state-controlled economy into a market economy, they have repeatedly avoided doing.  And there is no suggestion that the assembly is ready to do this, and there is nothing, per se, about the assembly that would change this situation.  It's not like Monday, or Wednesday, we're suddenly going to see food on the shelves.

So, this has been one of the primary arguments against it, and as things stand, it's not clear that it is going to change any of those things.

SREENIVASAN:  All right.  "Reuters" reporter Brian Ellsworth, joining us via Skype from Caracas today, thanks so much.

ELLSWORTH:  Thank you.

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