CARACAS/BARQUISIMETO, Venezuela (Reuters) – Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro was seeking a six-year term on Sunday in a poorly attended vote that was condemned by foes as the “coronation” of a dictator and likely to bring fresh foreign sanctions.
With the mainstream opposition boycotting the election, two of his most popular rivals barred from standing and state institutions in loyalists’ hands, the 55-year-old former bus driver is expected to win despite his unpopularity.
That could trigger oil sanctions from the U.S. government, and more censure from the European Union and Latin America.
The self-described “son” of Hugo Chavez says he is battling an “imperialist” plot to crush socialism and take over the OPEC member’s oil wealth. But opponents say the leftist leader has destroyed Venezuela’s once-wealthy economy and ruthlessly crushed dissent.
Maduro’s main challenger is former state governor Henri Falcon, who predicts an upset on the back of some polls showing him ahead and widespread fury among Venezuela’s 30 million people at the economic meltdown.
Most analysts believe, however, that Falcon has only a slim chance given abstention, the vote-winning power of state handouts, and Maduro’s allies on the election board. Results are expected by late evening.
Attendance appeared low across the country, from the wealthier, pro-opposition eastern Caracas to the fiercely anti-Maduro Andean mountains in the west of the country. There were some lines in poorer government strongholds, and the majority of voters interviewed said they were backing Maduro.
“I’m hungry and don’t have a job, but I’m sticking to Maduro,” said Carlos Rincones, 49, in the once thriving industrial city of Valencia, accusing right-wing business owners of purposefully hiding food and hiking prices.
The government has set up so-called “red point” zones close to polling stations so Venezuelans can scan their state-issued ‘fatherland card’ through which they receive benefits including food boxes and money transfers. Opposition critics say this is a way of scaring impoverished and dependent Venezuelans into sticking with the government. Maduro has also promised a “prize” to those who scan their cards after voting.
“This didn’t exist before, but I do it now because of the help I get,” said Jose Torres, 77, showing off an image of the late Chavez in his wallet after scanning his card in the plains and hills state of Lara.
Three state workers also told Reuters they were being pressured to vote, while government activists hovered around some polling stations, saying they were assisting voters.
Further hurting Falcon’s chances by splitting the anti-Maduro vote is a third candidate, evangelical pastor Javier Bertucci, who has picked up quite a following, not least thanks to his free soup handouts.
Many Venezuelans are disillusioned and angry over the election: They criticize Maduro for economic hardships and the opposition for its dysfunctional splits.
Reeling from a fifth year of recession, falling oil production and U.S. sanctions, Venezuela is seeing growing levels of malnutrition, hyperinflation, and mass emigration. “I’m telling the world: Stop your aggressive campaign against Venezuela,” Maduro said on Sunday morning as he voted, blaming opponents for the country’s mess but giving no specifics of possible reforms to nearly two decades of state-led economic policies.
Pro-boycott activists planned some scattered protests, but authorities deployed 300,000 soldiers and policemen to protect voting stations. In the mountainous city of San Cristobal near Colombia, three cloth dolls representing loathed officials, electoral council President Tibisay Lucena, Socialist Party No. 2 Diosdado Cabello and Vice President Tareck El Aissami, were hung from a footbridge.
But for many Venezuelans, Sunday was a day to look for scant food or stock up on water, which is increasingly running short due to years of underinvestment.“I’m not voting – what’s the point if we already know the result? I prefer to come here to get water rather than lose my time,” said Raul Sanchez, who was filling a water jug from a tap on the side of a busy road in the arid north-western city of Punto Fijo because his community has not had running water for 26 days.
Information Minister Jorge Rodriguez said some 2.5 million Venezuelans had voted by 10 a.m. EDT (1400 GMT), prompting ridicule from the opposition.
“Jorge Rodriguez starts the day (as usual) by lying,” said opposition lawmaker Juan Guaido, calling on Venezuelans to shun the vote.
Should Maduro win, he may choose to deepen a successful purge of critics within the ruling “Chavismo” movement.
Various high-profile figures, including former ministers under both him and Chavez, are in exile or jail.
Abroad, Maduro is likely to face an avalanche of western protests should he win, although Russia and China remain allies and have been important financial backers.
With oil output at around 30-year lows, foreign debtors looking to up the pressure, and multinationals departing or minimizing operations in Venezuela, Maduro will face a Herculean task to turn around the moribund economy.