Venezuelans voted on Sunday in a legislative election that would sharpen President Nicolas Maduro’s grip on power and further weaken his US-backed opposition rival Juan Guaido, who is leading a boycott of the votes he calls fraud.
The boycott of the main opposition parties meant that there was no doubt of victory for Maduro’s ruling Socialist Party, which gave it control of an enlarged 227-seat National Assembly – the only institution not in its hands.
Maduro told reporters after voting in Caraca’s main military barracks that it was time to end the opposition’s dominance of the responsible assembly, he said, for “the plague of sanctions, cruelty, pain and suffering.”
Turnout during the day was low, however, with many polling stations empty or with few people in a row.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned the vote as “a scam and a scam” designed by Maduro.
Washington, Guaido’s main ally, is leading pressure to fire Maduro with economic sanctions, including an oil embargo that has taken effect since April 2019.
“The results announced by the illegal Maduro regime do not reflect the will of the Venezuelan people,” Pompeo wrote on Twitter.
The Organization of American States said it will not recognize the result.
Maduro called on the opposition “with one voice to ask Joe Biden’s new US government to lift all sanctions.”
The election, questioned by about 14,000 candidates from more than 100 parties, comes with the country in a deep political and economic crisis – stifled by rampant inflation, paralyzed in endless queues for gasoline, lacking water and gas supplies and affected by sudden power cuts.
Since November 2019, inflation has reached 4,000 percent.
Venezuela has been hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic and voters had to wear masks inside polling stations, where the floors were marked to ensure that the distance was maintained.
“Those who abstain are wrong. How can you let others decide for you? You have to go out and vote!” 70-year-old Fany Molina said when she voted for a school in the center of the capital.
The longest lines were in the bastions of the Socialist Party, such as the district of 23 de Enero in Caracas.
In some cities, however, there were more people joining the ever-present lines at gas stations than voting, a reflection of the country’s crippling economic crisis.
“This is a humiliation, I will not vote,” Jose Alberto told AFP after waiting for hours at a gas station.
Maduro, a former bus driver who became president at the death of his mentor Hugo Chavez in 2013, was re-elected in 2018 in fraud-based polls – also boycotted by opposition parties – a victory that much of the international community described as illegal.
The United States, the European Union and many Latin American countries have long blamed Venezuela’s devastating economic crisis on Maduro’s oppression and misunderstanding.
Instead, they supported Guaido when National Assembly speakers declared themselves interim presidents in January last year.
Guaido, 37, urged voters to stay home on the grounds that “free and fair” conditions for holding elections do not exist.
“Maduro’s goal is not even to gain legitimacy,” he told AFP in an interview this week, adding that the goal was instead to simply obliterate all forms of democracy.
Guaido and his allies are planning a week-long referendum from Monday seeking public support to extend the mandate of the current National Assembly until “free, controllable and transparent” elections can be held.
However, the results will not be binding, as Maduro exercises control over the country’s institutions, including the Supreme Court and the powerful military.
Original enthusiasm that greeted Guaido’s power supply has waned and critics now see his crowd as a desperate game.
The defeat is likely to leave Guaido increasingly isolated, analysts say – not least because he will lose leadership of the National Assembly, on which he based the legitimacy of his presidential ambitions.
Allies are watching
Maduro’s expected victory will be greeted by his foreign allies Russia and China, which lend his regime legitimacy, as well as a legal framework for their agreement that will help circumvent US and EU sanctions, analysts say.
The Electoral Commission, appointed by the Maduro-friendly Supreme Court, said more than 20 million people had the right to vote.
Still, opposition dissidents who criticize Guaido for calling for a boycott will run in the election, despite being accused of giving Maduro legitimacy.
“They will represent the new opposition after January 5” when the new legislature takes office, says political scientist Jesus Castillo.