CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuelans head to the ballot box Sunday in regional elections that could tilt a majority of the states’ 23 governorships back into opposition control for the first time in nearly two decades of socialist party rule.
The election will be 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 are projected in polls to win more than half the races up for grabs, but whether they succeed will depend heavily on their ability to motivate disenchanted voters.
Socialist party candidates, meanwhile, waged competitive campaigns and urged Venezuelans to ensure Chavez’s legacy and social programs are kept alive.
“We are going to the governor’s office to take care of the problems in Miranda (state),” Hector Rodriguez, the socialist candidate in the nation’s second-largest state, said at a recent campaign appearance. “So that the future of our children is safer, more dignified and more joyous.”
Months of anti-government protests earlier this year left at least 120 dead, and a newly installed, pro-government constitutional assembly is ruling with virtually unlimited powers after a July vote that the National Electoral Council was accused of manipulating. With few checks and balances remaining, an increasing number of foreign leaders are calling Venezuela a dictatorship.
The opposition has objected to actions it says aim to suppress turnout among its base, including an electoral council move to relocate more than 200 voting centres at the last minute.
Former congresswoman Maria Corina Machado said she would refuse to participate in an election convoked by the constitutional assembly, which she and many others do not recognize.
“I am not going to vote,” Machado told the news outlet Diario Avance. “But I think every Venezuelan should do what their conscience dictates.”
In the aftermath of the protests, many opposition supporters have grown discouraged about the possibility of change. Others are upset at leaders they see as disorganized and unable to decide on a strategy to loosen Maduro’s grip on power.
The president has warned that new governors will have to take a loyalty oath submitting to the authority of the constitutional assembly, something that opposition contenders vow not to do.
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.”