President Nicolas Maduro is poised to regain control of Venezuela’s National Assembly on Sunday, in a vote that’s being boycotted by the main opposition parties.
His almost-inevitable landslide will cement his grip on the last major institution in the country that has democratic legitimacy.
Scarce crowds made their way into voting centers at schools across Caracas on Sunday morning, where masked voters were able to quickly cast their votes after having their hands sprayed with disinfectant. In the sprawling western slum of 23 de Enero, few trickled into the Manuel Palacio Fajardo school, where the late Hugo Chavez used to vote.
“I’m here because we desperately need our economy to improve,” said Carlos Aguilar, a 72-year-old retired electrician who depends on measly pension payments. “Even though the government handouts help, it’s not nearly enough. We’re trying to survive.”
A win for Maduro will further weaken the position of opposition leader Juan Guaido. He’s recognized as the legitimate ruler of Venezuela by the U.S. and dozens of its allies, but that’s based on his status as head of congress, a position he’s about to lose.
Guaido and his allies are boycotting the election, citing the absence of international monitors, while a minority segment of the opposition is taking part.
“It’s a mistake to not participate, I don’t like to see electoral centers this empty, because if we want a change we have to vote,” said 40-year-old Dayana Rios from Palo Verde, a working-class neighborhood near Petare, Caracas’s biggest slum. “We want a new assembly that’s committed to the needs of Venezuelans.”
Turnout is expected to be between 25% and 36%, according to Venezuelan pollsters. In the last congressional vote held in 2015, participation was 76%. Results are expected Sunday evening after polls close around 6 p.m.
Fewer people will turn out this time because the election isn’t perceived as credible, said Luis Vicente Leon, director of Caracas firm Datanalisis.
“This electoral event will have neither massive opposition witnesses, nor credible audit, nor trusted automated voting systems, which makes it difficult to be sure of its real results,” Leon said.
The government is trying to boost turnout through cash payments and food handouts. Maduro even promised to grant “special prizes” to the 100 communities with the highest participation rates.
With no real opponents and widespread apathy, the government could win between 190 and 230 of the 277 seats, according to Caracas-based political risk firm ORC Consultores. The new assembly will take over on Jan. 5.
Maduro will likely try to use control of the National Assembly to try to bypass U.S. sanctions and attract some foreign investment, especially through oil ventures, according to ORC director Oswaldo Ramirez. The assembly has to approve such investments.
“They were the ultimate traitors, calling for a plague of sanctions on their own people,” Maduro said of the acting assembly in a press conference after casting his vote around noon. “We were patient and resisted, and today we get justice.”
Although the main opposition parties won’t participate, some of them will still appear on the ballot. That’s because the top court — packed with Maduro loyalists — suspended and replaced the boards of those parties to hand them over to government allies in an attempt to boost the election’s appearance of legitimacy.
The economy is suffering through its seventh straight year of contraction, with food shortages and annual inflation of 6,600%.
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