Venezuela calls congressional elections amid political fight

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelan officials announced Wednesday that congressional elections will be held on the first Sunday in December to choose members of the only branch of government not now controlled by socialist Presidethat nt Nicolás Maduro.

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National Elections Council President Indira Alfonzo announced the Dec. 6 vote for a new National Assembly. The legislative body is now led by opposition politician Juan Guaidó, who has led an unsuccessful U.S.-backed campaign for over a year to oust Maduro.

Guaidó's opposition coalition has accused Maduro's government of hijacking the upcoming vote to consolidate power.

This date will pressure opposition leaders to decide whether they will participates in an election that some say would validate Maduro's illegitimate government, while others fear a boycott would risk losing relevancy and an important power base.

Guaidó posted a tweet immediately after the election date was announced, calling it a farce that Venezuelans won't recognize. “We choose to live with dignity and democracy, not impositions,” he said.

Opposition leaders sharply rejected recent maneuvers by officials loyal to Maduro that they say aim to consolidate his grip on power by unconstitutionally seizing control of the National Assembly.

The Supreme Court, which is stacked with Maduro justices, recently formed a new elections commission, and it also replaced the leadership boards of two popular opposition parties.

A once oil-rich nation, Venezuela is in a deepening economic and political crisis that has driven more than 5 million people to flee the once wealthy oil nation's chronic shortages of basic goods and a broken health care system.

A day before announcing the election date, the elections commission said Venezuelans will elect 277 new members, an increase its membership from the current 167, estimating a population growth.

Members of the National Assembly serve five-year terms.

Guaidó in January 2019 claimed to be Venezuela's interim president as head of the National Assembly, arguing that Maduro's election months earlier was fraudulent and thus had left the office empty. Maduro, however, remains in power, and Guaidó's congressional term ends Jan. 5.

Maduro often accuses Guaidó of being a puppet of the Trump administration, which the president contends wants to oust his socialist government so the U.S. can exploit Venezuela’s oil wealth.

In a state TV address Wednesday, Maduro said election officials have assured him that they will take measures to ensure a safe voting process amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“Democracy enriches our country,” Maduro said. “I call on all Venezuelans to prepare themselves to turn out massively on Dec. 6. Venezuela needs a new National Assembly.”