CARACAS, Venezuela -- Venezuelan government loyalists voted Sunday in elections marred by violent protests over a constitutional assembly which opposition parties say is illegal and designed to impose a totalitarian, Cuban-style single-party system.
But turnout was low and opposition leaders said participation was less than 10 percent by mid-afternoon. At least seven protesters were killled by police and pro-government vigilantes, according to the state prosecutors office.
In a surreptitious sign of apparent nerves, President Nicolas Maduro cast his vote before dawn, accompanied by advisers and state media.
The run-up to the vote has been marked by months of clashes between protesters and the government that has left at least 120 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 says the election has no legal basis as there was no prior referendum seeking public support for constitutional change. Instead, they say the election is a subterfuge designed to usurp the powers of an opposition dominated National Assembly that has become a thorn in Maduro's side.
End of democracy?
Critics say the election marks the end of any remaining semblance of democracy in Venezuela after almost two decades of increasingly autocratic socialist rule.
The election is stacked in favor of Maduro's socialist party and all 5,500 candidates for the 545 seats in the constituent assembly are his supporters.
Many observers say the real result will be measured by turnout. The opposition held a July 16 protest vote that it said drew more than 7.5 million symbolic votes against the constitutional assembly. If Maduro fails to match that number the new body will lack credibility in many minds.
The opposition called Saturday for roadblocks to start before dawn Sunday and a mass march on Caracas' main highway, but the government is threatening to jail anyone who protests.
The government is also desperately encouraging participation with tactics that include 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. Some were frank about their motivations for voting - staying in the government's good graces to receive aid.
"I'm here because I'm hoping for housing," said Luisa Marquez, a 46-year-old hairdresser.
Others echoed government propaganda saying they were there to defend the country from an international capitalist conspiracy led by U.S. "imperialists" to retake control of the world's largest its oil and gas reserves.
Once one of Latin America's wealthiest nations, Venezuela has collapsed in political and economic chaos during Maduro's four years in power, thanks to lower oil prices and widespread corruption and mismanagement.
The special assembly being selected Sunday will have powers to rewrite the country's 1999 constitution but will also have powers above and beyond other state institutions, including the opposition-controlled congress.
While opinion polls say a vast majority oppose him, Maduro made clear in a televised address Saturday evening that he intends to use the assembly to govern without limitation, describing the vote as "the election of a power that's above and beyond every other. It's the super power!"
He said he wants the assembly to strip opposition legislators of their constitutional immunity and throw them in jail.
"The right wing already has its prison cell waiting," the president said. "All the criminals will go to prison for the crimes they've committed."
Saying the assembly will begin to govern within a week, Maduro said its first task in rewriting the constitution will be "a total transformation" of the office of Venezuela's chief prosecutor, a former government loyalist who has become the highest-ranking official to publicly split from the president.
The Trump administration has imposed successive rounds of sanctions on high-ranking members of Maduro's administration, with the support of countries including Mexico, Colombia and Panama.