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This weekend, Venezuela will hold a highly contentious election. It will create an assembly with the power to write a new constitution. Many believe it's a move by the president, Nicolas Maduro, to establish a full dictatorship. Venezuela's economy has crashed. It has acute shortages of food and medicine, and hundreds of thousands have emigrated. NPR's Philip Reeves says the election is adding to the crisis.
PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Four months have passed since the latest wave of anti-government protests began in Venezuela. Maduro's plan to create a constituent assembly is making these still more intense. This week, Venezuela was paralyzed by strikes and protests. Fearful of completely losing control, the government's banned all demonstrations for the next few days. The election's on Sunday. Many view it as a tool to keep the deeply unpopular Maduro in power.
PAULO WROBEL: It's a sort of a constitutional coup.
REEVES: Paulo Wrobel is from the Institute of International Relations at Rio de Janeiro's Catholic University in Brazil. He believes Maduro's running out of options.
WROBEL: I think he is in his last attempt to survive. I cannot see him surviving for another year or so because there is no way to keep the population quiet.
REEVES: The assembly's members will be chosen using rules designed to sideline Maduro's opponents. About a third will be drawn from groups - trade unions, farmers, fishermen and so on - with close ties to the socialist government. The rest will be elected under a system that over-represents rural areas, where support for Maduro tends to be stronger thanks to government social programs. Professor Margarita Lopez Maya of the Catholic University in Caracas says it's easy to see what Maduro and his officials are doing. She spoke with NPR via Skype.
MARGARITA LOPEZ MAYA: They know by now that they don't have more than 20 percent of the population supporting them, so they have designed this arrangement in order that with a minority they can win the majority of the national constituent assembly.
REEVES: Maduro's answering his critics with defiance and decibels.
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PRESIDENT NICOLAS MADURO: (Speaking Spanish).
REEVES: "We'll win this battle with millions and millions of votes," Maduro tells his supporters. He promises that Venezuela's new constituent assembly will bring peace. Maduro hasn't actually specified what the assembly will do. Opposition politician Juan Andres Mejia fears the worst.
POLITICIAN JUAN ANDRES MEJIA: They will try to make this constituent assembly into a superpower that will rule over all the other powers. And that will mean that more dictatorship and less democracy.
REEVES: Many believe this will mean the end of Venezuela's Congress, where the opposition has a majority. After all, Maduro's tried that before. The current wave of protests was triggered by an attempt by the Supreme Court, which he controls, to strip Congress of its powers. Paulo Wrobel thinks Venezuela's fracturing into rival power bases, and the new assembly is part of this process.
WROBEL: There will not be one government recognized by the majority of the population. We are seeing this plight of the country.
REEVES: With Sunday's elections, these violent divisions in Venezuela are sure to deepen even more. Wrobel again.
WROBEL: I cannot see people staying still and not protesting. And I think this weekend will be quite a test.
REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.