Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro was seeking a six-year term on Sunday in an apparently poorly attended vote condemned by foes as the “coronation” of a dictator and likely to bring fresh foreign sanctions.
With the mainstream opposition boycotting the election, two of his most popular rivals barred from standing and state institutions in loyalists’ hands, the 55-year-old former bus driver is expected to win despite his unpopularity.
That could trigger oil sanctions from Washington, and more censure from the European Union and Latin America.
The self-described “son” of Hugo Chavez says he is battling an “imperialist” plot to crush socialism and take over the OPEC member’s oil wealth. But opponents say the leftist leader has destroyed Venezuela’s once-wealthy economy and ruthlessly crushed dissent.
Maduro’s main challenger is former state governor Henri Falcon, who predicts an upset due to widespread fury among Venezuela’s 30 million people at the economic meltdown.
Most analysts believe, however, that Falcon has only a slim chance given abstention, the vote-winning power of state handouts, and Maduro’s allies on the election board. Results are expected by late evening.
Attendance appeared low across the country, from the wealthier eastern Caracas to the fiercely anti-Maduro Andean mountains near Colombia. There were some lines, however, outside polling stations in poorer government strongholds, and the majority of voters interviewed said they were backing Maduro.
“I’m hungry and don’t have a job, but I’m sticking to Maduro,” said Carlos Rincones, 49, in the once thriving industrial city of Valencia, accusing right-wing business owners of purposefully hiding food and hiking prices.
The government has set up so-called “red point” zones close to polling stations so Venezuelans can scan their state-issued ‘fatherland card’ through which they receive benefits including food boxes and money transfers. Maduro has promised a “prize” to those who do so. Critics say this is a way of scaring impoverished Venezuelans into sticking with his government.
“This didn’t exist before, but I do it now because of the help I get,” said Jose Torres, 77, showing off an image of the late Chavez in his wallet after scanning his card in the plains and hills state of Lara.
Falcon said his team had received some 350 complaints about the “red points.” Three state workers also told Reuters they were pressured to vote, while pro-government activists hovered around some polling stations, saying they were assisting voters.
Further hurting Falcon’s chances by splitting the anti-Maduro vote is a third candidate, evangelical pastor Javier Bertucci, who has picked up quite a following, not least thanks to his free soup handouts.