Caracas — Venezuelans, reeling under a devastating economic crisis, began voting on Sunday in an election boycotted by the opposition and condemned by much of the international community but expected to hand deeply unpopular President Nicolas Maduro a new mandate.
Maduro, political heir to late leftist firebrand Hugo Chavez, has presided over an implosion of the once wealthy oil producer’s economy since taking office in 2013.
Hyperinflation, food and medicine shortages, rising crime and broken water, power and transport networks have sparked discontent and violent unrest among Venezuelans.
But the 55-year-old former bus driver is expected to easily defeat main rival Henri Falcon, a former army officer and state governor who has failed to gain the endorsement of the main opposition leaders, and evangelical candidate Javier Bertucci.
Low enthusiasm will likely reduce voter turnout and enable Maduro to control the outcome without major social backlashRisa Grais-Targow
Wearing a bright red shirt that identifies him as a "Chavista," the president arrived early at a Caracas polling station with his wife, Cilia Flores, and officials to cast his ballot.
Maduro, who has a tight grip on the electoral and military authorities, faces a bitterly divided opposition, which has called for a boycott.
"Low enthusiasm will likely reduce voter turnout and enable Maduro to control the outcome without major social backlash," said analyst Risa Grais-Targow of Eurasia Group.
Teresa Paredes, a 56-year-old housewife, said that "for the first time in my life I am not going to vote because we are living a dog’s life, without medicines, without food".
Alvaro Toroa, 64-year-old retiree from the opposition stronghold of eastern Caracas, said he cast his ballot because "this has to be ended. Falcon is able to bring disaffected Chavists and the opposition."
Aware of the popular mood, Maduro on Saturday promised an "economic revolution" if re-elected, and Falcon promised to dollarise the economy, return companies expropriated by Chavez and allow humanitarian aid, which the president rejects.
About 20.5-million people are eligible to vote in a single-round election to choose a president for a six-year term that will begin in January 2019.
Presidential elections are traditionally held in December but were moved up in 2018 by the all-powerful pro-government Constituent Assembly, catching the divided and weakened opposition offguard.
The Democratic Unity Roundtable opposition coalition, which has increasingly been pinning its hopes for change on outside pressure forcing the socialists to remove Maduro, has won support from the US, the EU and 14 countries of the Lima Group, which have called for the vote to be postponed.
Maduro is accused of undermining democracy, usurping the power of the opposition-dominated legislature by replacing it with his Constituent Assembly, and cracking down hard on the opposition. Protests in 2017, still fresh in the collective memory, left about 125 dead. The Democratic Unity Roundtable’s most popular leaders have been sidelined or detained, the boycott their only remaining weapon.
Washington has dismissed the vote as a "sham" to keep Maduro in power and has slapped sanctions on Caracas in a push to isolate his regime. Worse, the US threatens an oil embargo on top of sanctions.
Despite holding the world’s largest oil reserves, the country faces ruin, with its oil industry crippled. The IMF has cited a drop of 45% in GDP since Maduro took over in 2013.