Venezuelans vote on Sunday in regional elections seen as a key test for both President Nicolas Maduro and the opposition alike after months of street protests that failed to unseat him.
The opposition, unable to sustain the protests in which 125 people were killed between April and July, is seeking a big turnout which experts say could give them victory in the vast majority of Venezuela’s 23 states in the vote to elect governors.
International powers accuse Maduro of dismantling democracy by taking over state institutions in the wake of an economic collapse cause by a fall in the price of oil, its sole significant source of revenue.
Sunday’s polls are the first contested by the opposition since legislative elections in 2015 which gave it a majority in parliament.
Ex-presidential candidate and key opposition figure Henrique Capriles is among those calling for a massive turnout.
“Get out and vote, win and free the country from the dictatorship of Maduro,” said Capriles, the outgoing governor of Miranda province.
The opposition Democratic Union Roundtable coalition (MUD) finds itself having to lift its own discouraged support base. They have seen Maduro’s hand strengthened after he faced down the protests, forming a Constituent Assembly packed with his own allies and wresting legislative power away from the opposition-dominated national assembly.
“Vote, vote. We have to overcome the despair,” shouted Juan Carlos, a 50 year-old shopkeeper, as he handed out opposition flyers on a street in eastern Caracas.
For Maduro, the polls are an opportunity to give the lie, to some degree, to allegations of dictatorship at home and abroad levelled at him after forming the Constituent Assembly.
Maduro signalled this week that Sunday’s vote would effectively be a vote in support of the assembly, forcing even its staunchest critics in the opposition to recognize it.
He said governors-elect chosen in Sunday’s vote would have to be “sworn-in and subordinate themselves” to the Assembly, on pain of dismissal. “It’s an inescapable requirement.”
Even if his allies suffer at the polls, the elections could provide a boost for Maduro, said David Smilde of the Washington Office on Latin America.
“If they hold a semi-legitimate election that leads to opposition figures taking their position in governorships, it will inevitably reduce the resonance of the term ‘dictatorship’ when applied to Venezuela,” he said.
“The real test will come after the election as the government will either face a very different map with at least half of the governorships in the hands of the opposition, or will have to carry out some inelegant political maneuvers that will likely carry significant political costs,” said Smilde.
Many opposition voters are angered that the MUD, which boycotted the Constituent Assembly election in July, is participating in Sunday’s vote, in the process leading to fears of a low turnout.
“The accumulated hatred and helplessness faced with the lack of a solution to the crisis make thse elections and opportunity to send a message of discontent,” said Jesus Seguias, director of the Venezuelan Datincorp Institute.
The government has announced that the Santo Domingo dialogue with the opposition coalition will go ahead next week after the elections, but so far the opposition has not said if it would attend.
Talks began in the Dominican Republic capital last month to try to agree an agenda for full negotiations aimed at resolving the country’s economic crisis, but have made little progress since.