CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela’s ruling Socialist Party looked set to sweep Sunday’s nationwide mayoral polls, deepening opposition splits and consolidating President Nicolas Maduro’s position ahead of a likely 2018 re-election campaign.
Major opposition parties were boycotting the elections for 335 municipal mayors around the South American nation of 30 million people, in protest at a vote system they say is at the service of Maduro’s “dictatorship”.
But some small parties in the Democratic Unity coalition have dissented and run candidates, confusing opposition supporters already disillusioned at the failure to weaken Maduro in months of protests earlier this year that claimed 125 lives.
On a roll after surprise wins in October gubernatorial elections, the socialists were pulling out the stops to increase their current roughly 70 percent share of mayorships.
“The opposition controls 76 mayorships: it’s virtually impossible for them to keep half of those,” predicted local elections expert Eugenio Martinez, saying abstentionism was a gift to the government’s already well-oiled election machinery.
The socialists also hoped to win a re-run of the October governorship election in western Zulia state. That vote was annulled after winning opposition candidate Juan Pablo Guanipa refused to swear loyalty to a pro-Maduro legislative superbody.
Manuel Rosales, a former Zulia governor who fled to Peru in 2009 after corruption charges leveled by the government of Maduro’s predecessor Hugo Chavez, was running for the opposition this time. But Guanipa supporters and other sectors of the opposition boycotting Sunday’s vote have called him a “traitor.”
‘CAN‘T GIVE UP RIGHT TO VOTE’
Yon Goicoechea, an opposition activist running for mayor in the wealthy Caracas suburb of El Hatillo, said it was self-destructive for larger anti-Maduro parties to abstain and hand political space to “Chavismo”, as the ruling movement is known.
“There’s reticence to participate because the national election board doesn’t offer guarantees or impartiality,” said Goicoechea, just out of jail for alleged coup-plotting. “But the solution cannot be giving up the right to vote .. The abstentionists will regret it within two weeks.”
Despite presiding over one of the worst economic meltdowns Latin America has seen, and with ratings barely half when he was elected, Maduro is enjoying a political upturn after the October gubernatorial vote. He is favorite to be the socialists’ candidate at the 2018 presidential election and could win if the opposition does not re-unite and re-enthuse supporters.
The election takes place at the end of a fourth year of crushing recession in which millions of Venezuelans are suffering from increased hunger, disease and shortages.
Venezuelan analyst Diego Moya-Ocampos, of IHS risk consultancy, said it was unprecedented for some segments of the opposition to participate while others were boycotting.
“It will continue consolidating the ruling party’s position,” he said.
Additional reporting by Johnny Carvajal; Editing by Alexandra Ulmer and Andrew Hay