Venezuela’s opposition will contest regional elections on Sunday for the first time in nearly four years but it will do so disunited and unconvinced President Nicolas Maduro will allow the vote to be free.
The main opposition boycotted the last legislative and presidential elections over a lack of free, fair and transparent polls but agreed to take part in Sunday’s mayoral and gubernatorial vote after receiving certain assurances from the government.
Sunday’s vote will be overseen by observers from the European Union at about 1,000 of the 14,400 voting centres, the first such European mission since 2006. The 100-strong team deployed across Venezuela on Thursday.
The opposition won four state governorships out of 23 states when it last participated in the elections in 2017.
Turnout is expected to be low among the 21 million registered voters in the country.
Opposition leaders have tried to galvanise the electorate, campaigning on high poverty levels and a collapse in public services, particularly outside the capital Caracas. However, they face an uphill battle in competing against the well-funded electoral machine that is Maduro’s Socialist party.
“There is no water here. There is no electricity. There is no food. We have nothing but hope,” Eva Prieto, a 52-year-old lawyer and opposition supporter, told the Reuters news agency at a campaign closing event for Manuel Rosales, a candidate for the governorship of western Zulia state.
Rosales, a 68-year-old lawyer who served as governor of Zulia between 2000 and 2008, is seen by pollsters as one of the opposition candidates most likely to win a governorship. Polls predict the opposition could also win in the border state of Tachira, to the south.
Zulia, a centre for Venezuela’s oil industry, has been badly hit by blackouts, and shortages of drinking water and gas, due to years of poor infrastructure investment.
“We are going to stop the destruction and Zulia will enter another stage in its history,” Rosales told Reuters in Maracaibo, the state capital.
The opposition’s showing may also be hurt by doubts over some opposition candidates’ independence from the Maduro government.
Critics accuse some candidates of intentionally running against the Socialist party to split the opposition vote.
Others have expressed doubt over whether a raft of concessions by the Maduro government – an apparent attempt at securing some relief from punishing international sanctions – will actually make the voting fair.
While agreeing to run, the main opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) still insisted the elections “won’t be fair or conventional” due to “serious obstacles” placed by the government.
Opposition leader Juan Guaido, meanwhile, has not spoken openly in support or against participation in the vote. Guaido was recognised as the president by the US and its allies in 2019, but his support base has dwindled amid the country’s deepening economic crisis.
In October, Maduro suspended talks with opposition members, mediated by Norway in Mexico City, aimed at ending a deadlock over how the federal government should respond to the economic and social crises gripping the country.