Venezuelan activist shot dead in protest against controversial elections

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Luisa Marquez, a hairdresser, told reporters she hoped to get a house as she waited with her daughter in a queue to vote for an all-powerful constitutional assembly that opponents of the current president, Nicolas Maduro, fear he'll use to replace Venezuela's democracy with a single-party authoritarian system.

Now, President Nicolas Maduro is pushing a radical plan to consolidate his leftist movement's grip over the nation: He is creating a political body with the power to rewrite the country's constitution and reshuffle - or dismantle - any branch of government seen as disloyal.

The opposition has called for a boycott and mass demonstrations against the election, which it calls a bid by Maduro to install a dictatorship with the backing of the military.

Maduro's critics say that the only people who are candidates for membership in this national assembly will be his supporters, who could revise the country's constitution to keep him in office indefinitely.

A 39-year-old lawyer who was a candidate in Venezuela's southeastern town of Ciudad Bolivar was killed from multiple shots fired by assailants who broke into his home overnight, prosecutors said, adding the motive was as yet unknown.

Panama on Saturday said it was following suit, and also backed the USA sanctions against Venezuelan officials.

Maduro's decree cracking down on demonstrations warned that those taking part risked up to 10 years in prison.

The security forces have used armoured vehicles to dispel protesters in the Caracas district of El Paraíso amid the sound of gunfire, AFP says, citing local reports.

Elsewhere, streets in Venezuela have been largely deserted with just a trickle of people heading to vote in the widely criticised elections.

State television showed Maduro casting the first vote in a west Caracas polling station.

Today, through a secret, direct and global vote, the Venezuelan population elect 537 parliamentarians and the remaining eight members of the assembly will be voted on August 1st amid the indigenous communities of Venezuela.

"This is for elections, for the freeing of political prisoners, for change", said Opposition Congressman Freddy Guevera.

Several foreign airlines have suspended flights to the country, and families of U.S. diplomats there have been ordered to leave. A popular referendum will be held on the new constitution after it is drafted.

The US, the European Union, the Organization of American States, as well as Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and Mexico oppose the election, warning it could decapitate Venezuela's democracy and lead to further unrest.

Neighboring Colombia - a refuge for tens of thousands of Venezuelans fleeing the chaos at home - said on Friday it would not recognize the results of Sunday's election in Venezuela.

The US has suggested further sanctions could follow.

Once one of Latin America's wealthiest nations, Venezuela has spiraled into a devastating crisis during Maduro's four years in power, thanks to plunging oil prices and widespread corruption and mismanagement.

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