Turnout in Venezuela election reported to be low after main opposition coalition called for abstention, alleging vote was rigged.
Venezuelans have voted in the country’s controversial election, with incumbent President Nicolas Maduro widely expected to win a second term in office after a boycott call by the main opposition coalition.
The turnout in Sunday’s vote is reported to have been low, with final results likely to be announced later in the evening or the following day. Polls closed at 22:00 GMT.
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The winning candidate will begin a six-year term as president in January 2019.
Maduro, the widely unpopular political heir to the late leftist firebrand Hugo Chavez, has promised an “economic revolution” if re-elected, having presided over an implosion of Venezuela’s economy since taking office in 2013.
Hyperinflation, food and medicine shortages, rising crime and broken water, power and transportation networks have sparked violent unrest in recent years, and left Maduro with a 75-percent disapproval rating.
Still, the 55-year-old is favourite to come out on top of candidates Henri Falcon and Javier Bertucci.
Venezuela’s main opposition coalition, the Democratic Unity Roundtable, boycotted the election, while Maduro’s two most popular rivals, Henrique Capriles and Leopoldo Lopez, were barred from running in the vote.
Lopez is under house arrest and Capriles is accused of misusing funds while a state governor.
Prior to the vote, the opposition coalition alleged that the election was rigged, describing it as the “coronation of a dictator”. The National Electoral Council is widely seen as being aligned with the president’s leftist government.
Minutes before the polls closed, Al Jazeera’s reporters in the capital, Caracas, and the opposition stronghold of San Cristobal said polling stations appeared to be significantly quieter than during Venezuela’s last presidential election in 2013.
Turnout during that vote was about 80 percent.
Al Jazeera’s Lucia Newman, reporting from Caracas, said Maduro’s opponents Falcon and Bertucci had raised concerns over several “irregularities” during Sunday’s vote.
Maduro said their complaints were an excuse for low turnout, and that the government is satisfied with the amount of people who had come out to vote, Newman added.
‘Your vote decides: ballots or bullets’
Casting his vote early in Caracas, Maduro said he would insist on a “dialogue for peace” with the country’s opposition if victorious.
“Your vote decides: ballots or bullets, motherland or colony, peace or violence, independence or subordination,” said the former bus driver and union leader. “It’s offensive when they say the Venezuelan people are falling under dictatorship.”
Falcon, an independent, has promised to dollarise wages decimated by rampant inflation, seek assistance for Venezuela’s ailing economy from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and accept humanitarian aid.
Bertucci, an evangelical candidate, has pledged to reshape Venezuelan politics according to “Christian values” and increase foreign investment.
Javier Corrales, a Venezuela expert at Amherst College, said the opposition’s sit-out strategy could be as disastrous as its boycott of congressional elections in 2005, which led the ruling party to sweep all seats and pass legislation removing presidential term limits.
“The irony is that this is the least democratic election of all but it’s also the best chance the opposition has ever had,” said Corrales.
“If Maduro wins by a large margin, he’ll take it is as a green light to continue radicalising and moving in the direction of completely destroying the private sector.”
‘Very few people’
About 20 million people were eligible to vote in Sunday’s single-round election.
Al Jazeera’s John Holman, reporting from San Cristobal, said initial reports indicated voter turnout throughout Venezuela appeared low in the early hours of voting.
“San Cristobal is a real opposition stronghold so the opposition boycott would have some reflection here in the thought process of citizens, but we have also been to other parts of town [where there is strong government support] and there are very few people at the polling stations,” Holman reported earlier on Sunday.
Only 34 percent of Venezuelans said they would definitely vote in the election, according to Venezuelan polling firm Datanalisis.
Authorities deployed 300,000 soldiers and police officers to protect voting stations, with pro-boycott activists planning scattered protests, Reuters news agency reported.
The ballot – during which voters also elected state and municipal legislative councils – had been scheduled for December but Venezuela’s National Constituent Assembly, populated by supporters of Maduro, brought it forward.
Opposition candidates alleged that the move was an attempt to catch them off-guard in order to enhance Maduro’s prospects of winning.
“Whether the vote is legitimate or not probably has less to do with how many people vote than whether there is trust in the system itself, and certainly we know from the international community that it has already been written off as a fraud,” Newman said.
The United States, European Union and a number of Latin American countries have said they will not recognise the results of the vote.
Despite having the world’s largest proven oil reserves, Venezuela’s GDP has dropped by 45 percent since Maduro took office, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Ongoing food and medicine shortages and faltering provision of utilities have sparked growing discontent and unrest among Venezuelans. More than 100 people were killed in protests throughout 2017.
Al Jazeera’s Newman said “everything from electricity to transportation” is in desperately short supply.
“Most businesses are out of business … The only thing in permanent abundance is the endless queues,” she said.
IMF estimates Venezuela’s economy will shrink by 15 percent this year, with unemployment expected to rise to 36 percent by 2022.
The US has imposed sweeping sanctions on Venezuela in response to Maduro’s alleged erosion of the country’s democracy.
Maduro, meanwhile, has accused the US and its allies of waging “economic war” on Venezuela, saying the measures imposed by Washington were an attempt to force Venezuela to default on its debt.
‘A decadent regime’
Juan Mujica, a government supporter, said the vote would “be a response to the world that the revolution is still alive” if results favoured Maduro.
She told Al Jazeera that voter participation was needed to “defeat those [powers] that want to intervene in the internal affairs of Latin America and the world”.
In contrast, Rachid Yasbek, a general coordinator for opposition party Justice First and deputy in Venezuela’s National Assembly, called the vote a “manipulation to legitimise a decadent regime”.
“This is all a show, the results are already known. We don’t have real conditions to have clean elections,” Yasbek told Al Jazeera.
“This year we are looking for a change, not just to change the president, but to change the system.”
Elizabeth Melimopoulos contributed to this report