Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro will take the first step at the end of the week to reorganize the government. Voters will select a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution, and because the opposition has refused to participate, the outcome likely means the end of the opposition-led National Assembly, the only remaining institution outside Maduro’s grasp. On Wednesday, the opposition began a 48-hour strike, one of the last desperate steps it can take before Venezuela becomes a Cuba-style dictatorship.
Maduro has been plotting this move possibly since last October, when his Socialist government shut down a recall referendum, a constitutional right developed by Hugo Chavez, Maduro’s predecessor and political mentor. He has definitely had the move in mind since at least March, when he tried to dissolve the National Assembly through the country’s supreme court—a move he later reversed amid international outcry. Sunday’s vote would elect 364 members of the constituent assembly; the remaining 181 would be elected by members of seven different sections of society, including students, farmers, and businesspeople. This system, even if the opposition weren’t boycotting, favors government supporters, because it gives equal weight to sparsely populated rural areas that are more likely to favor Maduro’s government. But after the near collapse of the Venezuelan economy, the scarcity of basic staples like food and medical supplies, Maduro is deeply unpopular with the country’s 20 million voters, 85 percent of whom are reportedly against redrafting the constitution. This week’s hard deadline puts the opposition in a tough spot. Once the constituent assembly is created, the opposition will likely lose all legitimate political power. So in the following days the opposition must strike a balance between putting enough pressure on Maduro, and making sure the country doesn’t descend into mass violence.