Caracas/ Venezuela: Deadly violence erupted around a controversial vote held in Venezuela on Sunday, with a candidate to the all-powerful assembly being elected shot dead in his home and troops firing weapons to clear protesters in Caracas.
The unrest highlighted the tensions over the vote called by beleaguered President Nicolas Maduro despite months of demonstrations and fierce international criticism.
He is gambling his four-year rule on the 545-member citizens’ “Constituent Assembly” empowered to dissolve the opposition-controlled congress and change laws as it reforms the nation’s constitution.
A candidate for the new body in Venezuela’s south eastern town of Ciudad Bolivar, 39-year-old lawyer Jose Felix Pineda, was killed from multiple shots fired by assailants who broke into his home overnight, prosecutors said.
He was the second candidate to be murdered, after the July 10 death of another, Jose Luis Rivas, as he was campaigning in the northern city of Maracay.
In the west of Caracas, national guard troops fanning out to put down any disruption to the election used armored vehicles and fired shots to disperse protesters blocking roads.
Video posted on Twitter showed troops smashing down a metal gate and entering to the sounds of gunfire, and what appeared to be an armored vehicle on fire.
The opposition has called for a boycott and mass demonstrations against the election, which it calls a bid by Maduro to install a dictatorship with the backing of the military.
Four months of protests against Maduro and the new assembly have left more than 100 people dead. Maduro kicked off voting by casting his ballot in a west Caracas polling station.
“I’m the first voter in the country. I ask God for his blessings so the people can freely exercise their democratic right to vote,” the president said. He was accompanied by his wife, Cilia Flores, who is a candidate to sit on the new assembly.
Turnout will be key to determining the legitimacy of the election. But that will be difficult to ascertain as most voters will be able to vote twice, as candidates are drawn from social and industry sectors as well as geographically.
Surveys by Datanalisis, a pro-opposition polling firm, show more than 70 percent of Venezuelans opposed the idea of the new assembly — and 80 percent reject Maduro’s leadership.
Maduro decreed a ban on protests during and after the vote, threatening prison terms of up to 10 years for anyone violating the order. Fear of the violence worsening has rippled across the region, and beyond.
The US, the EU and Latin American powers, including Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and Mexico, have come out against the election, saying it would destroy Venezuelan democracy.