Millions vote in Venezuela disputed poll

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By BBC

More than seven million voters have taken part in an opposition-organised referendum in Venezuela, according to academics monitoring the poll.

Voters strongly opposed government plans for a new constituent assembly with the power to scrap the National Assembly and rewrite the constitution.

Venezuela is polarised between backers of President Nicolás Maduro and opponents, who want fresh elections.

A nurse was shot dead while queuing to vote in the capital, Caracas.

Men on motorbikes opened fire, killing 61-year-old Xiomara Soledad Scott, and wounding three others.

The opposition blamed a “paramilitary” gang for the shooting, which prosecutors said they would investigate.

Separately, journalist Luis Olavarrieta was grabbed by what he said were a group of government supporters who robbed and beat him, but he managed to escape.

What does the opposition object to?

President Maduro’s plan will see a vote on 30 July for the new constituent assembly.

Its 545 members will have the power to dissolve state institutions, including the National Assembly, where opposition parties are in the majority.

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The opposition wants new elections before Mr Maduro’s term expires in early 2019 and say rewriting the constitution would almost certainly delay this year’s regional elections and next year’s presidential election.

It fears the new body could herald dictatorship.

As Julio Borges, who heads the National Assembly, puts it: “We don’t want to be Cuba. We don’t want to be a country without freedom.”

What does the government say?

Mr Maduro argues that the constituent assembly is the only way to help Venezuela out of its economic and political crisis and he described Sunday’s vote as “meaningless”.

“They have convened an internal consultation with the opposition parties, with their own mechanisms, without electoral rulebooks, without prior verification, without further verification. As if they are autonomous and decide on their own,” he said.

On the same day as the unofficial referendum, the government held a “trial run” for the 30 July vote, which it described as a success.

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Why is Venezuela in crisis?

  • Nearly 100 people have been killed in clashes stemming from the political conflict
  • The deep economic crisis is made worse by the falling price of oil, which accounts for about 95% of Venezuela’s export revenues and was used to finance some of the government’s social programmes. Forced to make cuts, President Nicolás Maduro has seen his support fall among core backers
  • Basic necessities, such as medicine and food, are in short supply
  • The opposition accuses Mr Maduro of mismanaging the economy and eroding democratic institutions
  • In March, the Supreme Court decided it would take over the National Assembly. The decision was reversed, but Mr Maduro was accused by opponents of trying to stage a coup. That sparked almost daily protests calling for his resignation
  • Mr Maduro says the opposition is trying to overthrow his government

Unofficial vote result – in detail

The rector of the Central University of Venezuela, Cecilia García Arocha, said 6,492,381 people voted inside Venezuela and another 693,789 at polling stations abroad. However, the vote has no legal status.

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The turnout is slightly less than the 7.7m people who voted for opposition candidates at the 2015 parliamentary elections. There are 19.5m registered voters in the country.

Voting on three questions, 98% rejected the new assembly proposed by President Maduro and backed a call for elections before 2019.

They also voted for the armed forces to defend the current constitution.

Sunday’s unofficial poll was held in improvised polling stations at theatres, sports grounds and roundabouts.

The opposition plans to burn ballot papers from the informal poll so those who voted against the government cannot be identified and victimised.

While the vote was only symbolic, BBC South America correspondent Katy Watson said the opposition hopes the high turnout will heap pressure on the government.

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