President Nicolás Maduro was expected to regain control of Venezuela's National Assembly on Sunday as the US- backed opposition urged voters to boycott the country's legislative election.
National Assembly President Juan Guaidó and his allies declined to seek re-election, saying they didn't trust the authoritarian Mr Maduro to hold a fair vote. In their absence, most of the candidates are Maduro allies or supporters.
The loss of the assembly would be another blow to an opposition that has struggled, despite US and other support, to make progress toward ousting the socialist government founded by Hugo Chávez.
For Mr Maduro, who claimed victory in 2018 in a presidential election widely considered fraudulent, the vote is an opportunity to consolidate power within Venezuela. He already controls the presidency, the courts and the military. But it's unlikely to earn him more legitimacy abroad.
The United States and more than 50 other countries have recognised Mr Guaidó as Venezuela's rightful leader. Trump administration officials and advisers to President-elect Joe Biden say they'll continue to do so after Sunday's vote. Mr Guaidó says he'll remain in the country after his term ends on 5 January.
In a country beset by hyperinflation, unemployment, shortages of basic goods and now the coronavirus, voting centers were noticeably quiet on Sunday. In many districts, more Venezuelans were waiting in line for gas than to vote.
As the polls opened, the government and the opposition waged a battle of images on social media. But the picture that emerged from each side was essentially the same: Few voters entering polling places under heavy military guard.
Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López said 370,000 troops had been deployed to secure voting centers. Government officials have described the election as an opportunity to recover the assembly from a hostile, foreign-backed opposition.
"Venezuela is giving an example to the world," Vice President Delcy Rodríguez told reporters after voting in Caracas. "Despite the aggressions the country lives with the criminal blockade, here is Venezuela expressing itself democratically."
Candidates include Mr Maduro's wife, Cilia Flores, a former National Assembly president; his son, Nicolás Maduro Guerra; and former assembly speaker Diosdado Cabello, a close ally. Mr Maduro’s friends, including former Ecuadoran president Rafael Correa and former Bolivian president Evo Morales visited voting centres on Sunday.
"I am proud to be Venezuelan, to have a free and conscious homeland," Mr Maduro said after casting his ballot. "We had the patience and the wisdom to wait for this day and end that awful National Assembly that brought the plague of sanctions, cruelty, pain and suffering."
The opposition has supported US sanctions against Mr Maduro's government and the state-run oil industry. The US Justice Department has indicted Mr Maduro and his inner circle on charges of narcoterrorism.
Mr Guaidó tweeted what he said were photos of his local polling place in Vargas state showing scores of people in 2015 and just a few on Sunday. "How's that Maduro fraud going?" he asked, and answered: "Like his regime, failed."
The Maduro government, he said, intends "to end the legitimate dialogue of the National Assembly that seeks to look for solutions to this battered daily life that we live. The answer has been and will be clear: Rejection."
Mr Guaidó has urged Venezuelans to participate in an opposition referendum calling for an end to Maduro's "usurpation of the presidency."
Opposition observers estimated turnout for the legislative election at less than 20%. Turnout in 2015 was more than 70%.
"Maduro and his regime lost all popular support," Mr Guaidó tweeted after the polls closed. "Those of us who want change in Venezuela are a vast majority. That is why they do not dare to call for free elections."
But two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, a critic of Mr Maduro and Mr Guaidó, said the opposition does not have a plan.
"The response of the democratic sectors cannot be the monitoring of a failure that we knew would occur or calls for mobilisation without tangible solutions," he tweeted. "After all these failures, it will be necessary to rethink real alternatives and open paths hand-in-hand with all sectors."
In the municipality of Baruta, east of Caracas, a small group of voters, all over 60, waited outside a polling place for a soldier to grant them access. Carlos Bolívar, 63, said the process was fast and simple. "We are expecting a lot of abstention," he said, and blamed a "campaign" to boycott the election.
"Today is the beginning of a new assembly," he said. "We have to vote because the Constitution says so. It's our right. I am voting for a way out, a dialogue. Guaidó's constitutional time has to end."
In the municipality of Libertador, west of Caracas, Jaqueline Sandoval said she cast a blank ballot as a protest. "I am not allowing the government to use my vote for them," she said. "I voted because I am not going to sit in my house crying all day anymore. We are dying, but I want to be heard."
She said the blank ballot was the only way she could speak up against two political extremes that she said would never represent her.
"I don't want to see Guaidó anymore," she said. "I will never give him my vote. I would've voted for God, to be honest with you, but his name was not on the ballot."
The Washington Post
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