MAIQUETIA, Venezuela — Venezuelans vote Sunday in state elections seen as a test of President Nicolás Maduro’s willingness to share power. But with polls showing the ruling socialists at risk of landslide losses, the authoritarian government appears to be falling back on a trifecta of tactics.
Manipulation, confusion and fear.
Two and a half months after the creation of a super-congress that gave the government nearly absolute power, Maduro has called the vote for state governors clear evidence that democracy remains alive here. But opposition leaders see a dirty campaign by the Venezuelan government, which President Trump has denounced as a “socialist dictatorship.”
State media is airing almost round-the-clock supportive coverage of pro-government candidates, while portraying their challengers as hypocritical and inept. All candidates, meanwhile, are being limited to four minutes of political ads per day on independent networks that now survive by self-censoring.
As often happened during the reign of President Hugo Chávez — who named Maduro his successor before his death in 2013 — food baskets are being doled out to hungry voters at pro-government rallies. In a move seen as purposely misleading, the ballots for Sunday’s election will include a host of candidates who lost in the primaries and are not supposed to be running. This week, the government abruptly announced that it would relocate some voting centers for “security reasons.” Opposition leaders said the move involved 205 locations in heavily anti-government districts in 16 states.
That, critics say, amounts to manipulation and confusion.
And then there’s fear.
Here in Vargas, a coastal state just north of Caracas, for instance, the brother of opposition candidate José Manuel Olivares was detained last week by intelligence police for allegedly stealing a car — a charge his family denies. While stumping for votes, the candidate is often shadowed, he said, by state agents.
On a recent afternoon in the narrow streets of a seaside slum, Olivares, an oncologist, was going door to door, shaking hands and kissing cheeks. As he walked up to one cement house, a woman watched him nervously from her window before scurrying out of view.
When he knocked, she answered, begging photographers following Olivares to lower their cameras.
“You see?” he said, wiping sweat off his brow after a short talk with the woman. “She’s scared. They think they’ll lose whatever the government gives them — even their jobs, if they’re public workers.”
Winning candidates from the opposition probably will find their powers restrained. Maduro has said that all governors will come under the authority of the Constituent Assembly, the government-controlled super-congress created in a July vote marred by allegations of massive fraud. That body is likely to make life tough for any governor who is not in line with Maduro.
Yet the vote still is seen as a key test. If turnout is high, polls suggest the opposition could capture governorships in up to 19 of Venezuela’s 23 states. Analysts are watching to see whether the government faces allegations of vote-rigging similar to those that emerged during the July election. Despite the polls, Maduro last weekend said his party is “expecting a historic success.”