Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro casts his vote at a polling station. (Miraflores Palace handout via Reuters)
Venezuelans appeared to be abstaining in massive numbers in a show of silent protest.
At least six people died overnight and into Sunday, prosecutors said, swelling a toll from four months of anti-government protests that was already over 110 killed.
Maduro, widely disliked for overseeing an economic collapse during four years in office, has pressed ahead with the vote to create the all-powerful assembly despite the threat of further U.S. sanctions and months of opposition protests in which more than 115 people have been killed.
Opposition parties are boycotting what they call a rigged election. Their sympathizers erected barricades across roads around the South American country and scuffles broke out with security forces who moved in quickly to disperse hooded demonstrators. An explosion injured a group of police officers during a protest in Caracas, according to a Reuters witness, leaving eight motorbikes smouldering on a main avenue.
Authorities confirmed three deaths over the weekend, including the killing of a candidate to the assembly during a robbery, although opposition lawmakers said the toll was much higher.
Critics say the assembly will allow Maduro to dissolve the opposition-run Congress, delay future elections and rewrite electoral rules to prevent the socialists from being voted out of power in the once-thriving OPEC nation.
The opposition has vowed to redouble its resistance and U.S. President Donald Trump has promised broader economic sanctions against Venezuela after the vote, suggesting the oil-rich nation’s crisis is set to escalate.
“Even if they win today, this won’t last long,” said opposition supporter Berta Hernandez, a 60-year-old doctor, in a wealthier Caracas district. “I’ll continue on the streets because, not long from now, this will come to an end.”
Undeterred, Maduro, a former bus driver and union leader narrowly elected in 2013, has accused right-wing governments of trying to sabotage “21st century Socialism.
“The ’emperor’ Donald Trump wanted to halt the Venezuelan people’s right to vote,” said Maduro, as he rapidly voted at 6 a.m. in a low-income area of the capital Caracas that has turned on the government.
“A new era of combat will begin. We’re going all out with this constituent assembly,” he added.
But with polls showing some 70% of Venezuelans oppose the vote, Maduro’s administration wants to avoid low turnout that would further undermine his legitimacy.
Venezuela’s 2.8 million state employees are under huge pressure to vote – with some two dozen sources telling Reuters they were threatened with dismissal otherwise.
At state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela SA (PDVSA), workers received text messages asking them to send in their national identification number once they had voted, three sources said. They expressed fear the plan was to identify who had sat out the election.
Fuelling anger against Maduro is an unprecedented economic meltdown in the country of some 30 million people, which was once a magnet for European migrants thanks to an oil boom that was the envy of Latin America.
But after nearly two decades of Socialist Party rule, currency and price controls have asphyxiated businesses.
Millions of Venezuelans now struggle to eat three times a day due to product shortages and runaway inflation that put basics like rice or flour out of reach.
Venezuelans rummaging through garbage or begging in front of bakeries are a common sight.
“Sometimes I take bread from my mouth and give it to my two kids,” said pharmacy employee Trina Sanchez, 28, as she waited for a bus to work. “This is a farce. I want to slap Maduro.”
To show the massive scale of public anger, the opposition earlier this month organized an unofficial referendum over Maduro’s plan.
A strong turnout of more than 7 million voters overwhelmingly rejected the constituent assembly and voted in favour of early elections.