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Venezuela's Maduro still standing after five turbulent years

© AFP/File | Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro is strongly tipped to be re-elected

CARACAS (AFP) - 

A year ago, few could see crisis-beset Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro maintaining power for a second term.

And yet Maduro appears likely to achieve a second mandate in Sunday's presidential election, despite presiding over the South American country's ruined economy, where people are short of food and protests last year left 125 dead.

The 55-year-old former bus driver and union leader has never doubted that he would be re-elected in a vote that he himself moved forward from December to May.

Yet he has had to fight to gain respect as the legitimate successor to Hugo Chavez, who was president from 1999 until his death in 2013 and who anointed his former foreign minister as successor to perpetuate his own populist leftist ideology.

"His authority was born out of the legacy of Chavez, but now we have a different Maduro, who knows that he is strong and is more aggressive", Felix Seijas, head of the polling agency Delphos, told AFP.

His term in office has been turbulent: the economic crisis, rising poverty and crime, widespread emigration, violent street protests and international sanctions.

To sideline the opposition and strengthen his grip on power, last year Maduro created the all-powerful Constituent Assembly packed with loyalists.

"Five years ago I was a novice", he said at a meeting recently. "Now I am a standup Maduro, with experience of battle, who has confronted the oligarchy and imperialism. I have arrived, stronger than ever."

Despite plunging popularity, he is strongly tipped to be re-elected over Henri Falcon, a former military officer and Chavist dissident who is battling not only Maduro's stranglehold on the country but also calls by the main opposition parties to boycott the vote.

- 'Not a Chavist' -

Elected by a slim margin in 2013, Maduro is accused by his critics of gross mismanagement of the country's economy and of being a "dictator" holding sway over everything, including the army.

The only bastion held by the opposition, parliament, has seen its powers passed to the Constituent Assembly.

Chavez considered him "a pure and hard revolutionary."

But some are skeptical: "He is perhaps a Madurist, but not a Chavist," Ana Elisa Osorio, a former minister under Chavez, told AFP.

Maduro responded to his critics by saying he is "a democratic president" battling an "economic war" launched by the political right backed by the United States which has led to hyperinflation and shortages of food and medicine.

"He has been underestimated, not only by the opposition but also by a lot of Chavists," said Andres Canizalez, an expert in political communication.

"But he has benefited from mistakes by others, managing also to neutralize his adversaries within Chavism."

Touted as a possible presidential candidate, Rafael Ramirez, the former head of the state oil group PDVSA and a Chavez confidante, was dismissed from his post as ambassador to the United Nations last year over corruption allegations.

- 'Worker president'-

"Maduro went through a metamorphosis and these elections are the culmination of that process. We could be passing from Chavism to 'Madurism'," said Canizalez.

Lacking the charm of Chavez, Maduro had tried to copy his predecessor with long daily appearances on television, using popular language and anti-imperialist rhetoric.

But he has gradually begun to build his own image.

Describing himself as a "worker president", the socialist leader, portly and with a big black moustache, drives a van, makes fun of his poor command of English, dances the salsa and is ever-present on social media networks.

Passionate about baseball, he was guitarist in a rock group in his youth.

Married to a former prosecutor, Cilia Flores, with whom he often appears, even dancing with her at meetings, he is the father of "Nicolasito", 27, a deputy in the Constituent Assembly, who was born during his first marriage.

In a sign of his changing image, his campaign slogan this year is "Everyone with Maduro, loyalty and the future."

In 2013, it was "Chavez forever, Maduro president".

© 2018 AFP