Almost 20 million Venezuelans are eligible to vote for 537 members of a new Constituent Assembly this Sunday, July 30.
Eight other members are being chosen by Venezuela's Indigenous peoples according to their own traditions. Here is how it came about and how it works:
President Nicolas Maduro made his call for a new Constituent Assembly at the end of a trade union march on May Day, one month after the Venezuelan opposition began a series of protests which often turned violent and had already left dozens dead. He emphasized three aims:
1. Overcoming the current conflict in Venezuela
2. Restoring peace in the country
3. Giving the people, especially working people, the chance to decide on Venezuela's future
That same day, he published Decree 2830, which laid out several other aims:
1. Restore cooperation between public powers
2. Develop a post oil economy
3. Give constitutional status to the social Missions
4. Strengthen the justice system to tackle corruption, impunity, speculation, etc.
5. Give constitutional status to the Communes etc, as new forms of democracy
6. Defend Venezuelan sovereignty against foreign intervention
7. Promote pluriculturalism over racial and social hatred
8. Recognize youth rights
9. Preserve biodiversity and promote ecological culture
The decree invoked Articles 347 and 348 of the current Bolivarian Constitution, which clearly give the president the power to call for a constituent assembly. The argument used by the opposition that he should have called a referendum first, as happened in 1999, is a political one. Maduro could have done that. But there is no requirement in the current Constitution for him to do so.
The nomination of candidates took place from May 30 to June 2.
Would-be candidates had to gather signatures from 3% of their electorate in support of their standing.
No serving member of the government or other public office holder can be a candidate.
55,314 names were put forward. 6,120 candidates met the conditions and were accepted by the National Electoral Council as candidates, 3,546 for the territorial vote and 2,574 for the sectoral vote.
The campaign for the election ran from July 9 to July 27. The vote is on Sunday July 30, from 6am to 6pm, although anyone lining up to vote at that time will be allowed to vote.
The 545 seats in the Constituent Assembly break down like this:
364 members of the Constituent Assembly will be elected from geographical areas, with one seat for each municipality in Venezuela, and two extra for each municipality which is a state capital, in other words the larger cities. The central Caracas area, with by far the largest population, will elect 7 members.
The electoral system here is mixed: first-past-the-post for the first seat in each municipality, and proportional for the extra seats in the larger ones.
This is the most novel aspect of this election, and the one that has caused most uproar among opponents. Apart from the eight Indigenous members, who will be chosen in the two days after the main election by a variety of assemblies in different Indigenous regions of Venezuela, 173 members will be elected from seven different sectors of society. The idea here is to give these different sectors a chance to elect members who who will speak directly to their specific interests. These seats are divided as follows:
8 for Campesinos and Fishers
5 for Business people
5 for the Disabled
24 for Students
28 for Pensioners
24 for Communal Councils
79 for Workers
The workers' sector is itself sub-divided thus:
17 for public administration
14 for service sector
12 for social area
11 for commerce
11 for self-employed
6 for industry
4 for construction
2 for oil industry
2 for transport
This has been described as an attempt to deepen the kind of participatory democracy mentioned in the 1999 Bolivarian Constitution, but developed more explicitly after 2005 by the government of Hugo Chavez. However it is anathema to those who believe representative democracy – electing representatives every four or five years and leaving it to them – is the only acceptable form of democracy.
The new Constituent Assembly will be sworn in within 72 hours of the results being announced. It will at first work with the procedural rules used by the 1999 Constituent Assembly. One of its first tasks will be to draw up its own rules and procedures.
There is no fixed time limit for the assembly to finish its new draft constitution. This is likely to be a development of the 1999 Bolivarian Constitution rather than a wholly new document.
Once the draft is agreed, it will have to be put to a national referendum to see if the Venezuelan people as a whole accept it or reject it.
Depending on what the assembly proposes, and what the electorate approves, there may then be new presidential and parliamentary elections, possibly by the end of this year or next year.
This will be the 21st set of elections held in Venezuela in the last 18 years of the Bolivarian revolution. The voting system used will be a version of the electronic system used in most of these earlier elections, which the Carter Center once described as one of the most reliable and transparent in the world.