Venezuela Squeezes Maduro Foes With Plan for a Vote by May

(Bloomberg) -- Venezuela appears set to hold presidential elections before the end of April, a plan abruptly announced after the European Union blacklisted seven key allies of President Nicolas Maduro.

Diosdado Cabello, second-in-command of the ruling socialist party and among those sanctioned, on Tuesday announced the vote in the South America nation’s all-powerful constituent assembly. The short time before the vote will wrong-foot a divided opposition, said Carlos Romero, a political analyst at the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas.

“This announcement sends a debilitated opposition running to find a candidate in very short time frame,” he said.

Foreign-exchange controls, the collapse of Venezuela’s oil-based economy, price caps and inflation that soared above 2,300 percent last year have made the formerly prosperous OPEC nation a landscape of crime, hunger and want. As the situation worsens, the government has increasingly resorted to repression to fend off opponents in the streets and at the polls.

The sanctions, endorsed Monday by foreign ministers from the 28-nation European Union, include a travel ban and an asset freeze. The punishment was meant to further isolate Venezuela after numerous accusations last year of electoral abuses and human-rights violations. The U.S. has slapped sanctions on more than a dozen top government officials -- including Maduro himself -- after the regime installed the assembly to rewrite the constitution and bypass the national legislature.

Cabello told assembly members Tuesday that an election would show commitment to a vibrant democracy.

Leaderless Force

“If they attack us, it’s because we’re on the right path,” Cabello, who is the assembly’s vice president, said to raucous applause. “The world wants to apply sanctions; we want elections.”

The body, composed entirely of socialist-party loyalists, swiftly approved the vote. An electoral commission stacked with regime supporters is expected to provide the final go-ahead.

Venezuela’s constitution says that a new six-year presidential term must begin in January 2019, but elections may occur any time before then. While votes typically occur toward year-end, the administration’s plan could maintain momentum after recent electoral victories.

Read more: 2018 Geopolitical Risks: Venezuela - Bloomberg Intelligence

The opposition currently is without any clear candidate as many of its leaders are in exile or have been banned from holding elected office. Further complicating matters, major dissident parties are being forced to re-register with electoral authorities after they boycotted last year’s mayoral votes to protest what they say is a rigged game.

Following Tuesday’s announcement, Maduro said he would accept his party’s nomination and the vote would not be deterred, regardless of any international outcry. “The more sanctions, the more elections,” he said during a rally to commemorate the start of nation’s nearly six-decade old democracy.

“I tell the opposition not to run from the elections,” he said. “We expect to see them in the presidential elections.”

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