CARACAS/SAN CRISTOBAL, Venezuela, July 30, (Reuters) - P rotesters clashed with security forces on Sunday as Venezuelans broadly boycotted an election for a constitutional super-body that unpopular leftist President Nicolas Maduro vowed would begin a “new era of combat” in the crisis-stricken nation.
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 U.S. sanctions and months of opposition protests in which more than 115 people have been killed.
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.
Opposition parties are sitting out what they call a rigged election, leaving streets deserted and polling stations largely empty and dealing a blow to the legitimacy of the vote.
Anti-Maduro activists erected barricades on roads around the South American country and scuffles broke out with security forces who moved in quickly to disperse hooded demonstrators. In what could be the spread of deadlier tactics, a bomb exploded in Caracas and injured a group of police officers.
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.”
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 percent of Venezuelans oppose the vote, the country’s 2.8 million state employees are under huge pressure to participate ― with some two dozen sources telling Reuters they were being threatened with dismissal.
The opposition said participation was at a paltry 7 percent by mid-afternoon.
Fueling 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 has put basics like rice or flour out of reach.
“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 favor of early elections.
But democratic pathways to political change have been systematically blocked. The opposition’s bid last year to hold a recall referendum against Maduro was nixed, regional elections have been postponed and the president has repeatedly ignored Congress.
As global condemnation mounted, the United States last week sanctioned 13 Socialist Party leaders, in part as a response to the election, and neighboring Colombia has said it will not recognize the results of Sunday’s vote.
In Sunday’s gravest incident, a bomb went off as a group of police officers on motorbikes sped past Caracas’ Altamira Plaza, an opposition stronghold. Several officers suffered burn injuries, according to a Reuters witness.
Clashes were also reported in the volatile Andean state of Tachira, where witnesses told Reuters an unidentified group of men had showed up at two separate street protests and shot at demonstrators.
Authorities confirmed six deaths over the weekend, including the killing of a candidate to the assembly during a robbery, although opposition lawmakers said the toll was higher.
The candidate, Felix Pineda, 39, was shot dead during a robbery at his home on Saturday night in the jungle state of Bolivar, the state prosecutor’s office said. Bolivar’s Socialist Party governor, Francisco Rangel, said the death was a “political hit job” and blamed it on the opposition.
Supporters of “Chavismo,” the movement founded by late leader Hugo Chavez, Maduro’s more charismatic predecessor who enjoyed high oil prices for much of his mandate, said they wanted to halt the unrest.
“The (opposition) wants deaths and roadblocks and the government wants peace,” said Olga Blanco, 50, voting for candidates to the assembly at a school in Caracas.
The assembly is due to sit within 72 hours of results being certified, with government loyalists such as powerful Socialist Party No. 2 Diosdado Cabello and Maduro’s wife and son expected to win seats.
“We have decided to be free, nothing else matters,” said Cabello, who could be the next assembly president amid rumors of power struggles within the ruling party. (Additional reporting by Girish Gupta, Andreina Aponte, Corina Pons, Jaczo Gomez and Carlos Garcia in Caracas, Maria Ramirez in Puerto Ordaz, Mircely Guanipa in Punto Fijo, Francisco Aguilar in Barinas, and Marianna Parraga in Houston; Writing by Brian Ellsworth, Girish Gupta and Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Nick Zieminski and Sandra Maler)