CARACAS, Venezuela — President Nicolás Maduro has thanked “the brave people of Venezuela” for voting in a controversial election for a new Constituent Assembly that will have the power to rewrite his country’s constitution.
The election will allow Maduro to replace Venezuela’s current legislative body — the National Assembly — with the new assembly, made up of 545 members, all nominated by his administration.
“We have a Constituent Assembly. I said, come hell or high water– and hell and high water came — and the Constituent Assembly arrived from the hand of the people, from its conscience,” Maduro said, claiming victory.
The opposition boycotted the election as a fraud and has called for massive protests to begin again Monday.
There has also been international criticism of the vote, including from the United States, with the State Department on Sunday issuing a statement saying the elections were “designed to replace the legitimately elected National Assembly and undermine the Venezuelan people’s right to self-determination.”
“We will continue to take strong and swift actions against the architects of authoritarianism in Venezuela, including those who participate in the National Constituent Assembly as a result of today’s flawed election,” the statement said.
Deadly clashes between protesters and police marred Sunday’s vote, which followed weeks of violent street protests in which many people have been killed or injured. On Sunday the death toll rose sharply with at least ten people — including two teenagers — killed at protests and a National Guard officer also reported dead by the attorney general’s office.
Venezuela’s National Electoral Council said that more than 8,089,000 people or about 41.53% of registered Venezuelan voters cast ballots Sunday.
At a rally Sunday evening, Maduro said more than 8 million votes made it “the biggest turnout that the Bolivarian Revolution has had in its entire 18-year history.”
Venezuela’s National Electoral Council President Tibisay Lucena said there had been “massive participation,” and read the names of the first candidates who received enough votes to become members of the Constituent Assembly, including first lady Cilia Flores and pro-Maduro former foreign minister Delcy Rodriguez.
A key opposition figure, Henrique Capriles, governor of Miranda state, earlier labeled the election fraudulent and called for protests at noon on Monday.
Speaking at a press briefing in Caracas, Capriles said voter participation Sunday was less than 15%. He claimed voter turnout was three times higher two weeks ago for an opposition-led, non-binding referendum against Maduro’s proposed Constituent Assembly.
The president of the National Assembly, Julio Borges, tweeted earlier that Lucena’s announcement of voter turnout of more than 8 million was almost triple the true turnout and “the biggest electoral fraud in our history.”
The polls opened at 6 a.m. ET Sunday, with nearly 380,000 troops guarding voting stations, according to a government release.
On the streets, National Guardsmen clashed with opposition protesters and police fired tear gas at crowds in Caracas. As dozens of police officers rode motorcycles through the Altamira neighborhood, a large explosion went off. Agence France-Presse video showed two officers, each with a leg on fire as comrades rushed to help them.
At one spot in the capital, opposition demonstrators set up barricades on a highway.
The death toll from the unrest ongoing since early April is 125, according to a statement from the Venezuelan attorney general’s office. That number does not include at least two of Sunday’s deaths, in which the reasons for the killings are under investigation.
News broke early that one of the candidates in the election, lawyer José Félix Pineda, had been shot dead in his home on Saturday and that opposition leader Ricardo Campos died Sunday morning. State prosecutors are investigating both deaths.
Young Venezuelans have taken to the streets for months to protest the vote, known locally as “la constituyente,” or the constituent. The Venezuelan National Guard and protesters clash nearly every day.
The opposition didn’t submit any candidates for the vote because it doesn’t recognize the legitimacy of the election.
Maduro’s opponents control the National Assembly, holding 112 of the body’s 167 seats, and have been battling with him for political power since they won a majority of seats in December 2015. Before the winners of those elections took office, Maduro stacked the country’s Supreme Court with loyalists to prevent his own impeachment.
Speaking after Sunday’s controversial election, Maduro claimed that the opposition turned down an offer from his government to postpone the vote. Two weeks ago, representatives of his government offered the opposition the chance to put up candidates for the Constituent Assembly election and to postpone the vote for 15 days, Maduro said. The opposition has boycotted the vote because they say it is illegitimate, and refused Maduro’s offer, the President said.
Maduro argues that the Constituent Assembly will help bring peace to a polarized country, with all branches of the government falling under the political movement founded by his late mentor and predecessor, Hugo Chavez. But critics say it will erode democracy.
On July 16, more than 7 million Venezuelans cast ballots in an unofficial vote against Maduro’s Constituent Assembly. Maduro ignored the results of the vote, which was organized by opposition leaders.
International reaction to the election was harsh, with many nations, including the United States, condemning it.
The Trump administration sanctioned 13 Venezuelan leaders associated with Maduro this week.
Mexico, Colombia and Panama followed with sanctions of their own against the same individuals. Argentina and Mexico said they won’t recognize Sunday’s vote results. Canada denounced the vote.
The Organization of American States deems the vote illegal. Spain said it will study, along with its partners in the European Union and countries friendly to the region, additional measures that may be effective in promoting a restoration of democratic institutions.
Nicaragua came to Venezuela’s defense, praising it for the “historic day for the brave people of Bolívar y Chávez, the President Nicolás, the United Socialist Party.”