SEEKING MANDATE

Venezuelans, reeling under a devastating economic crisis, began voting on Sunday in an election boycotted by the opposition and condemned by much of the international community but expected to hand President Nicolas Maduro a new mandate.
Maduro, the political heir to the late leftist firebrand Hugo Chavez, has presided over an implosion of once wealthy oil producer Venezuela’s economy since taking office in 2013.
Hyperinflation, food and medicine shortages, rising crime and broken water, power and transportation networks have sparked growing discontent and violent unrest among Venezuelans.
However, the 55-year-old former bus driver is expected to easily defeat his main rival Henri Falcon, a former army officer and state governor who has failed to gain the endorsement of the main opposition leaders, and an evangelical candidate, Javier Bertucci.
Wearing a bright red shirt that identifies him as a “Chavista,” the president arrived early at a Caracas polling station along with his wife Cilia Flores and trusted officials to cast his ballot.
Maduro, who has a tight grip on the electoral and military authorities, faces a bitterly divided opposition which has called for a boycott.
“Low enthusiasm will likely reduce voter turnout and enable Maduro to control the outcome without major social backlash,” said analyst Risa Grais-Targow of Eurasia Group. Teresa Paredes, 56-year-old housewife, said that “for the first time in my life I am not going to vote because we are living a dog’s life, without medicines, without food.”
Alvaro Toroa, 64-year-old retiree from the opposition stronghold of eastern Caracas, said he cast his ballot because “this has to be ended. Falcon is able to bring disaffected Chavists and the opposition.”
Aware of the popular mood, Maduro on Saturday promised an “economic revolution” if re-elected, while Falcon promised to dollarise the economy, return companies expropriated by Chavez, and allow humanitarian aid, something the president rejects.
Some 20.5 million people are eligible to vote in a single-round election to choose a president for a six-year term that will begin in January 2019. Presidential elections are traditionally held in December, but they were moved up this year by the country’s all-powerful and pro-government Constituent Assembly, catching the divided and weakened opposition off-guard. The Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) opposition coalition, increasingly pinning its hopes for change on outside pressure forcing the socialists to remove Maduro, has won support from the US, the European Union and 14 countries of the Lima Group who have called for the vote to be postponed. — AFP

Maria Isabel SANCHEZ