Having failed to remove Maduro in protests, earlier this year, that led to 125 deaths and thousands of arrests, the opposition was confident a strong showing on Sunday could be parlayed into victory in next year’s presidential election.

Venezuelan citizens wait in line at a polling station during a nationwide election for new governors in Caracas, Venezuela, October 15, 2017.
Venezuelan citizens wait in line at a polling station during a nationwide election for new governors in Caracas, Venezuela, October 15, 2017. (Reuters)

Venezuela’s political crisis shifted from barricades to ballots on Sunday with nationwide gubernatorial elections likely to hand the demoralised opposition a major victory against President Nicolas Maduro’s government.

The ruling Socialist Party controls 20 of 23 state governorships, but polls showed the opposition Democratic Unity coalition likely to upend that, given voter anger at hunger and shortages stemming from an economic meltdown.

“I used to have enough food in my house to feed my children tomorrow, but now no longer. Hunger motivates us to vote,” said Zulay Acosta, voting early in southern Puerto Ordaz city.

The government, however, made liberal use of state resources in its candidates’ campaigns, evoked popular former leader Hugo Chavez at every rally, and appealed to Venezuelans’ exhaustion with political turmoil to vote against “candidates of violence.”

“I vote because I want peace, not terrorism,” customs official Franquelsi Anciana said in the western city of Maracaibo.

The pro-government election board also put up hurdles for the opposition that could have an impact on final results.

Those included the relocation of 200 voting centres on security grounds – mostly away from pro-opposition areas – and a refusal to update the ballot to remove names of opposition politicians who lost in primaries, likely confusing voters.

TRT World spoke to Miguel Tinker Salas, a professor of Latin American studies at Ponoma Colllege, who says that these regional elections will play a major role in how the 2018 presidential elections take shape.

Glitches

There were also technical glitches such as electrical failures – which have become commonplace in the crisis-hit economy – though the government said these were minimal.

“The machine I was using is damaged, and they said I had to wait two or three hours. I’m not going to do that,” said opposition supporter Lorena Hidalgo, an architect in the western city of Punto Fijo.

Additionally, numerous opposition leaders and activists, including former presidential hopefuls Henrique Capriles and Leopoldo Lopez, are barred from office or have been detained on accusations of coup-plotting, corruption and other charges.

With polls closing around 6 pm (2200 GMT) – though those still in line were being allowed to cast their ballot – participation appeared to be less than in past presidential and congressional elections, but probably over 50 percent. Abstentionism would favour the government, analysts said.

The government has cast Sunday’s votes, from remote Amazon and Andean communities to heavily populated Caribbean coastal areas, as evidence Venezuela is no dictatorship, contrary to increased global criticism this year.

Officials also presented the election as a vote against US President Donald Trump, who has imposed some sanctions on Venezuela, particularly targeting Maduro’s top officials for alleged rights abuses and corruption.

“They have said we are a dictatorship. No. We are a rebellious, egalitarian people,” Maduro said on Sunday. “Democracy has triumphed.”

“Too many dying”

Even if the government loses most governorships, the newly elected opposition officials may not be allowed to take office.

Maduro has said they must swear allegiance to a new legislative superbody elected in July.

But the opposition does not recognise the entirely pro-government Constituent Assembly, which supersedes all other institutions, including the opposition-controlled congress.

Some opposition supporters, particularly youths in a self-styled “Resistance” movement on the front line of street battles earlier this year, had accused their leaders of selling out and legitimising a dictator by taking part in Sunday’s vote.

But most appeared to have swallowed those qualms.

“Too many people were dying, with few results,” said student Manuel Melo, 20, who lost a kidney from the impact of a water cannon during one protest. “I agree with the elections.”

Should the government suffer big reverses, it can mitigate them by reducing funding and responsibilities for governors, as it has in the past when local posts have gone to the opposition.

After the election, the opposition will seek to throw the focus back to its main demands: guarantees of free and fair conditions for the 2018 presidential vote, freedom for jailed activists, foreign humanitarian aid and authority for congress.

With an eye to easing foreign pressure as well as preventing more street protests, the government wants to revive a stalled mediation bid with the opposition in the Dominican Republic.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies