Venezuela: Maduro calls for popular constituent assembly to remake constitution

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro announces plans for a Constituent Assembly at a May Day rally in Caracas.

Speaking to tens of thousands of supporters gathered to commemorate International Workers Day on May 1, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro announced he would call a constituent assembly, effectively remaking the country's constitution.

"Today, on May 1, I announce that I will use my presidential privileges as constitutional head of state in accordance with article 347, to convene the original constituent power so that the working class and the people can call a national constituent assembly," President Maduro said.

The Venezuelan leader invoked article 347 of the Bolivarian Constitution, which allows for the convening of a national constituent assembly with the purpose of "transforming the state".

"I call a constituent assembly that will be profoundly communal, from the working class, from the people," he added.

The surprise announcement comes on the heels of weeks of violent protests called by opposition parties. The violence has cost the lives of more than two dozen people and wounding more than 400 others, while causing significant damage to public infrastructure and buildings including hospitals and schools. Small businesses have also been looted.

Venezuela's current 1999, or Bolivarian, constitution, was the outcome of last president Hugo Chavez's election promise to rewrite the country's Magna Carta with the participation of Venezuelan society. The constitution is widely regarded as one of the most progressive in the world, not only enshrining broad social rights to the population, but also creating space for the population to directly intervene in political decision making beyond elections.

According to the constitution, the constituent assembly would be comprised of 500 members, directly elected by Venezuelans. Additionally, a number candidates for these positions would be put forward by sectoral organizations, including student groups, unions, campesino organizations as well as private sector interests.

The Venezuelan leader emphasised that this step would be an important measure to overcome the current political conflicts in the country.

"I don't want a civil war," Maduro concluded. "Do you want dialogue? Constituent power! Do you want peace? Constituent power!"

Nonetheless, opposition leader Henrique Capriles opposed the move, calling it a "coup".

"We alert the democratic governments of the world, international public opinion, Maduro consolidates a coup d'etat and deepens the serious crisis!" Capriles tweeted following President Maduro's announcement.

According to constitutional expert Hernan Escarra, while the constituent process is underway, the country's current political institutions would continue operating.

On April 27, Venezuela announced it would begin the process of withdrawing from the Oorganization of American States, after repeated attempts by Almagro to sanction the South American country under the organization's so-called "Democratic Charter."

Almagro has also been chided by Venezuelan officials and diplomats from other Latin American and Caribbean countries for his open support to Venezuela's opposition groups and leaders, including his unprecedented step in calling for general elections in Venezuela ahead of the 2018 date.

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