Venezuela’s leader casts unusual pre-dawn vote in controversial election

CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro asked for global acceptance on Sunday as he cast an unusual pre-dawn vote for an all-powerful constitutional assembly that his opponents fear he’ll use to replace his country’s democracy with a single-party authoritarian system. 

Accompanied by close advisers and state media, Maduro voted at 6:05 a.m. local time, far earlier and less publicly than in previous elections. The run-up to the vote has been marked by months of clashes between protesters and the government, including the fatal shooting of a 61-year-old nurse by men accused of being pro-government paramilitaries during a protest at a church a few hundred feet from the school where Maduro voted.

Maduro and his socialist administration deny links to violent paramilitaries and say the political opposition is responsible for the violence that has left at least 113 dead and nearly 2000 wounded in four months of protests. 

“We’ve stoically withstood the terrorist, criminal violence,” Maduro said. “Hopefully the world will respectfully extend its arms toward our country.” 

The opposition is boycotting Sunday’s vote, contending the election has been structured to ensure Maduro’s socialist party continues to dominate. So all 5,500 candidates for the 545 seats in the constituent assembly are his supporters and the vote’s success is being measured by turnout. 

The government is encouraging participation with tactics that include offering social benefits like subsidized food to the poor and threatening state workers’ jobs if they don’t vote.

Opinion polls say more than 70 percent of the country is opposed to Sunday’s vote and by mid-morning, turnout appeared light in a dozen sites visited by The Associated Press, with dozens or hundreds of voters lining up at polling sites that saw thousands by the same time in previous elections. Some were frank about their motivations for voting — staying in the government’s good graces to receive aid.

“I’m here because…

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