What's at stake in Venezuela's election?

Venezuelans will head to the polls in a National Constituent Assembly.

ByABC News
July 29, 2017, 6:53 AM

— -- On Sunday, Venezuelans will head to the polls to choose delegates that would help rewrite the country's constitution in one of the country’s most divisive elections. The vote comes after months of economic crisis, political instability, mass protests, sanctions from the U.S. and violence.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has said the vote is a chance to bring unity and peace to the country.

"July 30 brings a total renovation, a rebirth of the original Bolivarian spirit, a rebirth of peace and a homeland of equality," Maduro said Thursday, referring to the movement started by Hugo Chavez, according to VTV.

For the opposition, who have vowed to boycott it, Sunday's vote represents an illegal move to try to strip the country’s legislative body of its power.

"What's at stake is nothing less than the loss of freedom of Venezuela and the initiation of the Cuban model in a false, illegal, constitutional way," Diego Arria, a former governor of Caracas and an opposition leader living in the U.S., told ABC News.

But both sides agree on one thing –- that the July 30 vote marks a crucial turning point after months of turbulence. So what is at stake, and how could this vote impact the country's future?

PHOTO: An opposition activist holds a flag reading "No more dictatorship" during a blockade to protest against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, July 18, 2017.
An opposition activist holds a flag reading "No more dictatorship" during a blockade to protest against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, July 18, 2017.

What kind of crisis is Venezuela experiencing?

Venezuela's economic woes have roots in a currency crisis that was deepened by falling oil prices in the petroleum-dependent country, according to George Ciccariello-Maher, an associate professor at Drexel University and the author of “Building the Commune: Radical Democracy in Venezuela.”

"Since 2012, we saw the beginning of a crisis originating many ways in the exchange rate system, which is a fixed exchange rate system,” Ciccariello-Maher told ABC News. “That, along with a number of other factors, really spiraled into a much deeper crisis today. The collapse in oil prices exacerbated this situation, the government did not respond quickly enough to adjust the exchange rate system and it created a whole system of black market currency and smuggling, which created these shortages of goods.”

Venezuela, like many oil-rich countries, imports much of its food and consumer goods. The problem isn’t necessarily that Venezuelans don’t have the money to buy certain products, but rather that the products themselves are scarce or completely unavailable. This has had a huge impact on people’s everyday lives and on the country’s political system.

“The dire economic crisis that Venezuela is facing -- with rampant shortages of food, medicine and other basic goods -- is a major factor contributing to the country's current political instability,” Alexander Main, a senior associate for international policy at the Center for Economic Policy and Research, told ABC News via email. “Urban centers, particularly Caracas, have been rocked by months of constant protests, in which demonstrators from the middle classes protest shortages and call for the departure of President Maduro.”

According to the country's chief prosecutor, more than 100 people have been killed since early April, The Associated Press reported. The government announced security measures that include banning protests through Tuesday, a move the United Nations and other freedom of speech groups have criticized, the AP reported.

PHOTO: Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's supporters take part in the closing of the campaign to elect members for the Constituent Assembly that would rewrite the constitution, in Caracas, July 27, 2017.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's supporters take part in the closing of the campaign to elect members for the Constituent Assembly that would rewrite the constitution, in Caracas, July 27, 2017 on the second day of a 48-hour general strike called by the opposition.

What is Sunday's vote trying to accomplish?

Venezuela’s constitution was written during a previous national constituent assembly in 1999 under then-President Chavez. Now, Chavez’s protégé and the country's current president, Maduro, is giving Venezuelans the opportunity to elect delegates to rewrite or modify that constitution.

“It’s the legislature positioned against the executive and the judiciary, which is creating chaos in the state apparatus itself and a lasting deadlock that has been going on for well over a year now," Ciccariello-Maher said. "This is the backdrop and this is why the constituent assembly is being posed as one of the ways to break this deadlock and move forward."

Maduro and his party said they have the right to call for the assembly, but opposition politicians said he should have first asked the public to approve it in a referendum, as Chavez had previously done.

"First of all, this is a constituent assembly that was convened illegally for one simple reason: the president doesn't have a reason to convene it, the people do. The people can express themselves through voting. But the president didn't do that. The president convened a constituent assembly and then set the rules of the game," Orlando Molina, president of the Latin American Institute for Strategic Studies and a member of the opposition, told ABC News from Caracas.

It’s not clear whether Venezuelans would have chosen to have the vote had Maduro asked them; earlier this month, more than 7 million people voted in a symbolic referendum against the July 30 vote, according to the AP.

"The problems of Venezuela can't be resolved with a constituent assembly," Molina added.

And with opposition groups vowing to boycott Sunday's vote, it's unlikely that it will bring unity.

"The vote is yet another polarizing factor that will make it more difficult to achieve some form of reconciliation," Main said. "However, what happens after Sunday's vote is critical. There is an opportunity to embark on a larger discussion about the country's political future in which the government would be wise to offer to recognize the powers of the opposition-controlled legislature and the opposition would be wise to discuss recognizing the constitutional legitimacy of Maduro's presidential mandate."

Opposition parties are also concerned that Maduro will dissolve the National Assembly, which they control, while the constituent assembly does its work, although Maduro has not indicated he would, Main said.

What will happen after Sunday’s vote?

Leaders both for and against the national constituent assembly acknowledge that it will not have an immediate impact on the country's political and economic instability. But once chosen, the 545 members elected by region and by economic sector will convene within 72 hours and get to work, according to Telesur.

“The question isn’t: ‘Is this the perfect solution?’ but ‘Is this a solution?’” Ciccariello-Maher said. “Because there really are no solutions on the table to this deepening crisis.”

Presidential elections are set to be held in 2018, but some opposition groups want Maduro to step down before then.

"The bigger problem is governance. There is too much hunger and too much misery, and this is just going to deepen the crisis in Venezuela. The same government with all the power it has is not going to be able to control things," Molina said. "This could provoke a civil war or a military coup."

"There are sectors of Chavismo that aren't radical who, along with the opposition, are looking for ways out, such as a transitional government. And that's what we're working on," Molina said.

Arria, who said he faces arrest if he returns to Venezuela and has had his passport annulled, agreed.

"I believe that we should have a transitional government for at least two years that would attempt to decipher and dismantle the network of corruption that has been created," Arria said.

But others stress that dialogue, and the support of the international community for it, are the keys to peace.

"For the country to avoid civil war, dialogue is the only way forward," Main said. "If the U.S. wishes to help Venezuela resolve its political and economic crises, it needs to put aside talk of further sanctions and, instead, push both sides to reinitiate dialogue and support the ongoing efforts of former Spanish President Zapatero and Pope Francis to bring the two sides to the negotiating table."

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