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Opposition vies for landmark victory in polarized Venezuela

People look for their names on voter registration lists outside a polling station during regional elections in Caracas, Venezuela, Sunday, Oct. 15, 2017. (Ariana Cubillos / Associated Press)
People look for their names on voter registration lists outside a polling station during regional elections in Caracas, Venezuela, Sunday, Oct. 15, 2017. (Ariana Cubillos / Associated Press)

CARACAS, Venezuela – Elections in Venezuela on Sunday could tilt a majority of the country’s 23 governorships back into opposition control for the first time in nearly two decades of socialist party rule – though the government says the newly elected governors will be subordinate to a pro-government assembly.

The election is being watched closely as an indicator of how much support President Nicolas Maduro and the socialist movement founded by his predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez, maintain amid soaring inflation and crippling food and medical shortages that continue to wreak havoc in Venezuelans’ daily lives.

Anti-government candidates were projected in polls to win more than half the races, but this success depended heavily on their ability to motivate disenchanted voters. Early Sunday, hundreds of Venezuelans lined up to vote in Miranda, a state surrounding the nation’s capital. Other voting centers appeared nearly empty.

“Let your vote be a testament to what you want: Continuity or change,” said Carlos Ocariz, the opposition’s candidate in Miranda said, urging people to vote. “There are two paths.”

The election comes during one of the most turbulent years in recent Venezuelan history. Four months of anti-government protests that began in April left at least 120 people dead. In August, a new pro-government constitutional assembly ruling with virtually unlimited powers was installed after a vote that opposition leaders refused to participate in and that the National Electoral Council is accused of manipulating.

With few checks and balances remaining, a rising number of foreign leaders are calling Venezuela a dictatorship.

In in a taped message released Sunday, Maduro urged Venezuelans to vote in what he said would be a demonstration that the nation maintains a “vigorous democracy.”

“They’ve said we are a dictatorship,” Maduro said, walking calmly while holding a cup of coffee. “No. We are a democratic people, rebellious and with an egalitarian sensibility.”

In the run-up to the vote, Maduro warned that new governors will have to take a loyalty oath submitting to the authority of the body that is re-writing the nation’s constitution. The opposition candidates vow to avoid submitting themselves to an assembly they consider illegal.

The opposition has accused the pro-government National Electoral Council of trying to suppress turnout among its base. More than 200 voting centers, predominantly in opposition strongholds, were moved to alternative sites just days before the vote, affecting several hundred thousand voters. Council officials defended the relocations as a security measure in areas where violent protests took place in July.

Opposition-arranged buses were transporting voters to the new sites Sunday. Other voting centers that were slated to open got off to a late start. Ocariz said that three hours after the start of voting, only 44 percent of polling sites in Chacao, an opposition stronghold, were up and running.

Problems with electricity and voting machines appeared to be behind some of the delays.

“The more obstacles they put before us, the more we will overcome,” Ocariz said.

Many opposition supporters have grown discouraged about the possibility of change. Some are also upset at leaders they see as disorganized and unable to decide on a strategy to loosen Maduro’s hold on power.

Socialist candidates were urging Venezuelans to stick with the egalitarian principles installed by Chavez while also promising change.

“We look toward the future full of hope!” Hector Rodriguez, the young, charismatic pro-government candidate challenging Ocariz in Miranda, said on Twitter Sunday.

Sergio Camargo, a 59-year-old private security guard, said he planned to vote for Rodriguez.

“I hope that after this vote, the people against the government of President Nicolas Maduro are more sensible and let him govern,” he said before getting on a bus to his polling center.

The country’s divisions were apparent at a voting center where Ocariz cast his ballot. Government supporters dressed in red chanted on one side and opposition allies on the other.

“I came because I wanted to, not because I was forced!” the socialist supporters cried.

When Ocariz appeared, pro-government Venezuelans shouted, “Ocariz is a terrorist.” Some threw plastic water bottles at the candidate before military officers stepped in.

Susana Unda, a 57-year-old homemaker who voted for Ocariz, was using her truck to transport voters whose polling sites were relocated.

“I was born in a democracy and I want to die in a democracy,” she said.

An opposition victory would be no guarantee of significant change to the balance of power. After opposition candidates won a majority in congress in 2015, other branches such as the government-stacked Supreme Court and later the constitutional assembly essentially neutralized its lawmaking powers.

“The government can recognize some losses and gains by the opposition,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue. “But then it uses all the instruments at its disposal to usurp any authority and render them impotent.”


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