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Voting underway in Venezuela after candidate, activist shot dead

By Allen Cone
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Voting underway in Venezuela after candidate, activist shot dead
People check their names on a list at a polling station to vote on the National Constituent Assembly in Caracas, Venezuela, on Sunday. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez/EPA

July 30 (UPI) -- Venezuelans on Sunday began casting ballots for a new assembly with powers to rewrite the constitution, an election that drew violent protests and worldwide condemnation by governments.

One day before the election, which is widely seen as a power grab by President Nicolas Maduro, a leading candidate and an opposition activist were shot dead.

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Jose Felix Pineda, 39, a lawyer running in the election, was shot in his home on Saturday night, a senior Venezuelan minister said. Ricardo Campos, a youth secretary with the opposition Accion Democratica party, was shot and killed during a protest, the head of the national assembly said.

Two other men were killed in protests as demonstrators blocked roads in the Caracas, the capital, in defiance of a ban on demonstrations, the Venezuelan newspaper El Universal reported. Maduro's administration has threatened anyone who defies the current no-protest order with up to 10 years in prison.

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More than 100 people have died during four months of protests.

The opposition urged residents to boycott the vote.

Maduro, president since 2013, cast his ballot shortly after polling stations opened at 6 a.m.

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The president, in a speech broadcast on national TV, predicted a "big victory." He called the vote "the most important election held in Venezuela's political system."

Maduro said the new legislature -- called the Constituent Assembly -- "will be the space, the power of powers, the super power that will, so to speak, recover the national spirit, find reconciliation, justice, find the truth."

But Latin American countries, the European Union and the United States have criticized the election.

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On Wednesday, the United State imposed new sanctions on 13 current and former senior officials of Maduro's government. Mexico, Colombia and Panama also sanctioned the same individuals.

The Organization of American States branded the vote illegal.

"It would give the government the opportunity to turn Venezuela into a one-party state without any of the trappings of democracy," Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas, a business association, said to CNN.

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Trump earlier this month said in a statement that Maduro is a "bad leader who dreams of becoming a dictator."

Maduro, in response, accused Trump of trying to "prevent the people from carrying out its right to vote."

The polls, which are being guarded by nearly 380,000 troops, will close at 6 p.m., according to a government release.

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Maduro's opponents control the National Assembly with 112 of the body's 167 seats,

The proposed Constituent Assembly would be made up of 545 members, all nominated by Maduro's administration.

Earlier, Maduro filled the country's Supreme Court with loyalists to prevent his own impeachment.

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