CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelans voted on Sunday in mayoral races that the ruling Socialist Party is likely to win, deepening opposition splits and consolidating President Nicolas Maduro’s position ahead of a likely 2018 reelection campaign.
Major opposition parties are boycotting the elections for 335 municipal mayors around the South American nation of 30 million people, protesting a system they say serves 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 that claimed 125 lives earlier this year.
Under Maduro, Venezuela has endured one of the most profound economic meltdowns in Latin American history.
“If we’re going to change the government, we need to do it democratically,” said 81-year-old retiree Raul Ocana. “It was a huge mistake to (call for abstention) because if you don’t participate, someone else will participate for you.”
After the Socialists notched surprise wins in October gubernatorial elections, the government has spent weeks urging voters to turn out in hopes of increasing the party’s current share of roughly 70 percent of mayorships amid opposition abstention.
State agencies have pressured voters to participate in elections this year, particularly in the controversial July 30 vote for the all-powerful Constituent Assembly, which the opposition also boycotted.
Some government employees said they were being flooded with text messages urging them to show that they had voted by posting their ID numbers to state-run websites and to upload pictures of voting centers to social networks.
“They won’t leave us alone,” said a government ministry employee who requested anonymity. “It’s worse than ever. They are desperate to legitimize this election.”
The Information Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
‘ABSTENTIONISTS WILL REGRET IT’
The Socialists also hope to win a rerun of the October gubernatorial election in western Zulia state.
Opposition leader Juan Pablo Guanipa won that governorship in October, but the election was annulled and he was barred from holding office after he refused to swear allegiance to a pro-Maduro legislative superbody.
Former Zulia governor Manuel Rosales is running on the opposition ticket, but Guanipa supporters and other sectors of the opposition boycotting Sunday’s vote have called him a “traitor.”
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 victories to the Socialist Party.
“There’s reticence to participate because the national election board doesn’t offer guarantees or impartiality,” said Goicoechea, who is 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.”
Maduro’s approval ratings have fallen by half since he was elected in 2013 following the death of late Socialist leader Hugo Chavez, his mentor and predecessor.
But despite the nation’s economic problems and the accusations of creating a dictatorship, Maduro is enjoying a political upturn after the October gubernatorial vote. He is expected to be the Socialists’ candidate in the 2018 presidential election and still maintains support among party loyalists like retiree Jose Flores, 71.
“I‘m voting for democracy; it’s a way of showing other countries that there’s no dictatorship here,” Flores said outside a voting center on the poor west side of Caracas. “On the contrary, what we have is peace and democracy.”
Additional reporting by Johnny Carvajal and Deisy Buitrago in Caracas and Maria Ramirez in Puerto Ordaz; Editing by Alexandra Ulmer and Lisa Von Ahn