In Depth

Venezuela: Is Nicolas Maduro's 'sham' election a tipping point?

Election of 'temporary parliament' sparks fury at home and abroad

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro did not seem bothered by the news he had personally been made the subject of US economic sanctions.

"I don't take orders from the empire," he told supporters on Monday, adding: "Keep up your sanctions."

Maduro also mocked Donald Trump for becoming president through the electoral college system, despite losing the popular vote to Hillary Clinton.

"In the United States, it's possible to become president with three million votes less than your opponent," he said. "What a tremendous democracy."

Maduro joins his vice president and 13 other senior government officials on Washington, DC's economic blacklist, Reuters reports. 

White House security adviser HR McMaster said targeting the Venezuelan leader was a necessary response to a "sham" election designed to give him "absolute power" and that the country, in its current state, was a threat to democracy.

Why was the election so controversial?

Official government figures claim eight million people cast their ballot on Sunday, a turnout of 41 per cent. However, opposition politicians say the true number is closer to 12 per cent.

Maduro called the election to appoint a constituent assembly with an authority above Venezuela's legislature, the National Assembly.

A third of the seats were set aside for representatives of various groups, including public sector workers, pensioners and indigenous people. The remaining 364 seats were filled by pro-Maduro candidates after opposition parties called for a boycott.

The constituent assembly will have a wide range of powers and tasks, chief of which is redrafting the country's constitution, written in 1999.

In May, Maduro said "perfecting" the constitution would "lay the foundations of the recovery of peace in the republic", which has been in political turmoil since former president Hugo Chavez died in 2013.

Maduro's opponents at home and abroad described the election of a "temporary parliament" a naked attempt to subvert the authority of the National Assembly, with Spanish daily El Pais calling it "the last red line that separates a democracy from a dictatorship".

Political tension has been mounting since the Democratic Unity Roundtable, a coalition of anti-Maduro parties, became the majority in the National Assembly in the 2015 elections.

Enflamed by economic privations, unrest in the country spilled on to the streets in March, when the Supreme Court, which is widely seen as a puppet of Maduro's government, attempted to strip the National Assembly of its legislative powers.

Even after judges backtracked on the  plan, Venezuelans continued to pour on to the streets in mass anti-government demonstrations. Four months later, protests remain a near daily occurrence and are responsible for at least 120 deaths in clashes with police and pro-government paramilitaries.

Is Maduro becoming a dictator?

Like many nations emerging from a long tenure under a charismatic strongman leader, Venezuela has struggled to fill the vacuum left by Chavez.

Maduro was elected to power in 2013 on a promise to continue the lionised leader's socialist agenda, which the pro-government "Chavistas" credit with lifting many Venezuelans out of poverty, says the BBC.

However, anti-Chavistas argue that 18 years of democratic subversion and economic mismanagement under his socialist government brought the country to the brink of civil war.

Venezuela's reliance on its oil reserves - which account for 95 per cent of its export revenue, the BBC reports - means that falling global oil prices have had a devastating impact on living standards.

Recession and sky-high inflation have left many Venezuelans unable to afford basic necessities - and those who have the money face shortages of everything from food to medicine.

While Maduro still enjoys the unwavering support of hardcore Chavistas, including a host of socialist paramilitary groups who have been accused of killing opposition activists with impunity, ordinary Venezuelans are less convinced.

In an unofficial referendum called by the National Assembly on 16 July, almost 100 per cent of voters - more than seven million - opposed the formation of a constituent assembly and backed a national unity government to restore order.

Lacking the magnetism which made his predecessor untouchable to a large swathe of Venezuela's dispossessed, "Maduro’s easiest path to guaranteed survival is a one-party state,"  says The Independent, "and this is what he is now intent upon."

Although South America's republics are no strangers to stark inequality, corruption and political disenfranchisement, Venezuela's vertiginous decline "eclipses anything witnessed in decades", adds the paper.

What next?

It is unclear whether Maduro actually has any financial interests in the US to penalise, making sanctions a largely symbolic gesture of Washington's disapproval.

However, a White House source told Reuters officials were discussing an "escalatory process" which could expand the sanctions to hit Venezuela's only remaining economic ace - its oil trade.

The US is currently the chief importer of Venezuelan crude oil, so any restrictions would spell serious trouble for its economy.

Beyond the economic threats, Maduro's determination to force through the election despite near universal condemnation from other world leaders leaves Venezuela "facing international pariah status", says the Irish Times.

Colombia, Argentina, Mexico, Peru and Chile have all said they will not recognise the "illegitimate" constituent assembly, whose members are due to be sworn in on Thursday.

Meanwhile, National Assembly members say they will continue to sit in session, despite being rendered effectively powerless, reports the Washington Post.

In a video uploaded outside the National Assembly building on Monday, oppositon politician Delsa Solorzano said a "significant number" of lawmakers had turned up for work.

"Nothing and nobody will prevent us from fulfilling the mandate that the people have given us," he said. 

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