Opposition candidate killed in Venezuela as voting begins

A leading activist and an opposition candidate have been killed as voting gets underway in Venezuela for a controversial new assembly.

José Felix Pineda, a 39-year-old lawyer running in the election, was shot in his home while Ricardo Campos, a youth secretary with the opposition party, was shot dead during a protest.

The deaths are the latest result of violence in the country as President Nicolas Maduro seeks to set up a new assembly with powers to re-write the country's constitution following today's vote.

Venezuelan Bolivarian Army soldiers lineup to vote for the constitutional assembly outside of a poll station in Caracas, Venezuela, Sunday, July 30, 2017. Picture: AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos
Venezuelan Bolivarian Army soldiers lineup to vote for the constitutional assembly outside of a poll station in Caracas, Venezuela, Sunday, July 30, 2017. Picture: AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos

Venezuela's leader casts vote for 'super power' assembly

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro asked for global acceptance as he cast his vote for an all-powerful constitutional assembly that opponents fear will replace the country's democracy with a single-party authoritarian system.

Accompanied by close advisers and state media, Mr Maduro voted at 6.05 am local time, far earlier and less publicly than in previous elections.

The run-up to the vote has been marked by months of clashes between protesters and the government, including the fatal shooting of a 61-year-old nurse by men accused of being pro-government paramilitaries during a protest at a church a few hundred feet from the school where Mr Maduro voted.

The president and his socialist administration deny links to violent paramilitaries and say the political opposition is responsible for the violence that has left at least 113 dead and nearly 2000 wounded in four months of protests.

Nicolas Maduro
Nicolas Maduro

"We've stoically withstood the terrorist, criminal violence," Mr Maduro said. "Hopefully the world will respectfully extend its arms toward our country."

The opposition is boycotting Sunday's vote, contending the election has been structured to ensure Mr Maduro's socialist party continues to dominate. All 5,500 candidates for the 545 seats in the constituent assembly are Mr Maduro's supporters and the vote's success is being measured by turnout.

The government is encouraging participation with tactics that include offering social benefits like subsidised food to the poor and threatening state workers' jobs if they don't vote.

Opinion polls say more than 70% of the country is opposed to the vote.

The special assembly being selected on Sunday will have powers to rewrite the country's 1999 constitution but will also have powers above and beyond other state institutions, including the opposition-controlled congress.

While opinion polls say a vast majority oppose him, Mr Maduro made clear in a televised address Saturday evening that he intends to use the assembly to govern without limitation, describing the vote as "the election of a power that's above and beyond every other. It's the super power!"

He said he wants the assembly to strip opposition legislators of their constitutional immunity from prosecution and indicated he is eager to prosecute many more members of the opposition parties that control a handful of state governments along with the National Assembly, providing one of the few remaining checks on the power of the socialist party that has ruled this OPEC nation for nearly two decades.

"The right wing already has its prison cell waiting," the president said. "All the criminals will go to prison for the crimes they've committed."

Saying the assembly will begin to govern within a week, Mr Maduro said its first task in rewriting the constitution will be "a total transformation" of the office of Venezuela's chief prosecutor, a former government loyalist who has become the highest-ranking official to publicly split from the president.

AP

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