"I AM no Mussolini," insisted Venezuela's beleaguered President Nicolas Maduro on television early this month, but if things go on this way he could end up like Mussolini. That would be very unfortunate for him, and also for Venezuela.

The daily street protests against Maduro's rule are now in their second month, and around 40 people have already been killed, most of them by the police.

It didn't begin all that badly. Hugo Chavez, a radical former army officer who had led a failed coup attempt in 1992, was elected to the presidency quite legitimately in 1998. Venezuela was the richest country in South America because of its oil wealth, but most of the 31 million Venezuelans were very poor, and Chavez proposed to change that.

He had strong popular support -- majorities of around 60 per cent in the 2002 and 2006 elections, and still 55 per cent even in 2012 -- and he had lots of money to give to the poor. But he died of cancer in 2013, and his successor, a former bus driver called Nicolas Maduro, got barely 50 per cent of the vote in a special election later that year. He has not had a quiet moment since.

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The problem is money. Chavez ran up massive deficits to finance his spending on health, education and housing, which really did transform the lives of many of Venezuela's poor, but the bills only came in after he died. The world price of oil collapsed, Venezuela's income did too, and everything went sour.

Now Venezuela has the highest inflation in the world (700 per cent this year), and the economy has shrunk by almost one-fifth. There are chronic shortages of food and medicines: three-quarters of Venezuelans say they are eating less than two meals a day, and the child death rate is up 30 per cent. And a lot of people, including former Maduro supporters, are very angry.

To stay in power, Maduro must avoid an election, and the next presidential election is due next year. The opposition had already won a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly in 2015, so Maduro's first move, in late March, was to have the Supreme Court (packed with his supporters) simply declare that the National Assembly was "in contempt" of the country's laws and shut it down.

That was what brought the protesters out on the streets in such numbers that three days later Maduro lost his nerve and the Supreme Court revoked its decree. But the protests, fuelled by the growing shortages of practically everything, just kept going, and now the demonstrators are demanding that the next presidential election be brought forward from 2018 to this year.

Maduro is cornered. He could not win a presidential election this year, or in 2018 either. So he has played his last card: a new constitution. The last constitution was written by Chavez himself and adopted in 1999.

The Chavez constitution does not give Maduro the authority to do this, but the man is desperate. He needs an excuse to postpone elections he knows he would lose.

"I don't want a civil war," Maduro said while announcing his constituent assembly, but he is laying the foundations for one. He might even win it, in the short term, if the army and police stay loyal to him. But he really does risk ending up like Mussolini: executed without trial and hanging upside-down in a public square.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.