(Bloomberg) -- Police clashed with demonstrators who blocked roads and rallied against a contentious ballot on Sunday that marked the first step toward remaking Venezuela’s constitution in a way that could upend decades of democracy in the oil-producing nation.
Six people were reported dead as violence flared across country. Voters took to the polls to elect members for a new legislative body that President Nicolas Maduro insisted is needed to restore order after months of protests. Maduro plowed ahead with the vote and asked world leaders to accept the results in the face of a boycott by the opposition, international condemnation, and the threat of severe sanctions by the U.S., its largest trading partner.
“We’ve withstood the global campaign, we’ve withstood terrorism and criminal violence, and we are here in peace,” Maduro said. State TV images showed him and first lady, Cilia Flores, cast their vote early Sunday morning.
Colombia, Peru, Argentina and Panama issued statements saying they wouldn’t recognize Sunday’s vote. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley called the election a "sham" and said in a tweet the move was "another step toward dictatorship."
Voters are picking 545 delegates from over 6,000 candidates drawn from all walks of life, from students and pensioners to farmers and fishermen. Even so, the election is wildly unpopular among most Venezuelans; surveys earlier this month showed that nearly 8 in 10 opposed rewriting the nation’s two-decade-old charter.
Unlike during the unofficial referendum against the assembly earlier this month, when over seven million Venezuelans rejected Maduro’s assembly, entire districts and many of Caracas’ main thoroughfares were deserted on Sunday.
“The line at the bakery near my house to buy bread was longer than the one here,” said Leonardo Martinez, 42, a motorcycle taxi driver, as he looked on at a polling station in central Caracas. “Why do we need another constitution? How is it going to solve our problems?”
Maduro’s opponents also questioned Sunday’s turnout. Julio Borges, president of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, estimated that only about 1.5 million Venezuelans had voted by mid-afternoon.
“The government is in such bad shape, it is so divided, that the only thing that it has left is brute force,” he said in a webcast.
In addition to the deaths, the public prosecutor’s office reported seven police officers wounded in clashes with protesters. Adding to confusion, the government hasn’t indicated when the polls will close and how results of the vote will be announced. It’s also been vague on when exactly the delegates could be expected to convene to start reviewing the constitution.
Week of Tension
“We have no road map,” said Dimitris Pantoulas, a Caracas-based political consultant. Fears are rife that Maduro -- dogged by approval ratings in the low 20s and by triple-digit inflation -- will use the body to dissolve institutions or to do away with elections entirely. Others suggest that the assembly could be used a potential bargaining chip with his political foes.
The vote capped another week of tensions in Caracas, where many of the city’s 2 million residents stockpiled food and water amid a two-day national strike and regular street protests. Former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero met with opposition leaders, and on July 26, the U.S. added 13 senior Venezuelan officials to its sanctions list as part of efforts to deter the constitution rewrite. President Donald Trump has warned of “strong” economic actions Maduro proceeds with his plans.
U.S. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida said in a statement Sunday that he urged Trump to apply sanctions that “will not harm the people of Venezuela, but will deprive the Maduro regime of the resources they need to remain in power.”
Sector-wide sanctions could prove devastating given the two countries’ close economic ties and the dire state of Venezuela’s finances. The U.S. buys about a third of Venezuela’s crude production, and is the main buyer that pays in cash.
For many, the effect of Sunday’s vote may depend more on Washington’s reaction than any potential changes to the constitution.
“We’re talking about a really different country that cannot sell oil to U.S,” Francisco Rodriguez, chief economist at Torino Capital, a New York investment bank.