Voters in Venezuela have arrived at polling stations in local and regional elections to elect more than 3,000 state governors, mayors and city council members across the South American country, which is beset by a long-running recession and hyperinflation.
The elections on Sunday represent a major challenge for electoral authorities and opposition politicians alike, as the latter return to compete for votes against the government of President Nicolas Maduro for the first time in four years.
Opposition politicians had boycotted presidential elections and parliamentary elections in 2018 and 2020 respectively, accusing Maduro’s government of fraud.
Sunday’s elections will be observed by more than 130 international monitors, mostly from the European Union, satisfying a longstanding demand of Maduro’s opponents. Polls are expected to close at 6:00 pm local time (22:00 GMT).
It is the first time in 15 years that EU observers are in Venezuela. In previous elections, foreign observation was essentially carried out by multilateral and regional electoral organisations close to the Venezuelan government.
The observers will monitor electoral conditions such as fairness, media access, campaign activities and disqualification of candidates. They are expected to release a preliminary report early next week and an in-depth look next year.
Should the opposition lose the four state governorships it won in 2017 – out of 23 states – it would lack a power base to launch a campaign for presidential elections, due in 2024.
The vote will also test the impartiality of Venezuela’s electoral commission, which in May included two opponents among its top five directors, making it the most balanced board in 17 years, its members have said.
More than 21 million Venezuelans are eligible to vote for 23 gubernatorial and 335 mayoral positions, choosing among the more than 70,000 candidates who entered the races.
Maduro, whose term will end in 2025, is not on the ballot.
Historically, voter turnout has been low for state and municipal elections and the abstention ceiling has hovered at about 70 percent.
Regardless of turnout, Sunday’s elections could mark the emergence of new opposition leaders, consolidate alliances and draw the lines to be followed by Maduro’s adversaries, who arrive at these elections decimated by internal fractures, often rooted in their frustration at not being able to knock the heirs of the late President Hugo Chavez from power.