Maduro's socialists set for mayoral poll win in Venezuela

Caracas (AFP) –


Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro is set for the latest in a sweep of poll victories in mayoral elections on Sunday, with the opposition showing little sign they can prevent his re-election next year.

Battered by a series of electoral defeats, the main opposition parties are boycotting the vote, saying they lack any guarantees of fairness or transparency.

Voters are heading to the polls to elect 355 mayors across the country, but the lack of a serious challenge to Maduro candidates has led to skepticism in the main cities of Caracas, Maracaibo and San Cristobal.

"I'm not going to vote because I don't believe in the transparency of the CNE (National Election Council)," said Nerver Huerta, a 38-year-old graphic designer in Caracas.

Maduro's ruling socialist party was handed a clear path to victory after the three main parties in the opposition coalition Democratic Union Roundtable, MUD, refused to participate, although smaller parties have decided to contest the election.

On the cards is a repeat of the electoral drubbing suffered by the opposition in October's regional elections, which they claim were fraudulent, analysts say.

- Opposition divided -

Battling a crippling economic crisis in the oil-rich, cash-poor nation, Maduro has made an aggressive push to consolidate power in the run-up to next year's presidential elections.

Risa Grais-Targow of market analysts Eurasia group, said this weekend's boycott "will likely demoralize the opposition's base and ensure that the government does quite well."

That, she said, "along with a solid showing in October's regional elections, will likely make President Nicolas Maduro feel confident about his ability to control the outcome of next year's contest."

According to electoral expert Eugenio Martinez, the opposition would do well to hold on to even half of its 72 mayorships.

"The absence of the main opposition parties and the pressure of the Chavez machinery make it unfeasible for the opposition to maintain even half of the mayorships it controls," Martinez told AFP.

The ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) will improve on its current 242 mayorships, he said.

Key opposition leaders Maria Corina Machado and Henrique Capriles left the coalition when four of the five elected opposition governors in the regional elections were sworn in before Maduro's Constituent Assembly.

Swearing allegiance to the Assembly, created by Maduro as a means to bypass the opposition-dominated parliament, was seen as a sell-out by many Maduro opponents, particularly after months of deadly protests aimed at unseating him earlier this year.

Any opposition mayors elected on Sunday will also have to accept to be sworn in before the Assembly.

"They are not elections, but adjudications," Machado told AFP, adding that voting would mean recognition for the Constituent Assembly and thus constitute a "betrayal" of the 125 people killed in the protests.

Yon Goicoechea is contesting the election against the wishes of his party because he says the opposition must "defend" the political space it occupies.

Goicoechea, who is running for mayor in a Caracas municipality, said the government "will try to steal the vote, but we will not give it away."

- 'I'll be there for Maduro' -

Maduro's camp has its own problems, following the recent anti-corruption purge at state oil company PDVSA and the forced resignation of Maduro rival Rafael Ramirez from his post of Venezuela's ambassador to the UN.

But Chavism, the populist left-wing ideology left behind by late-president Hugo Chavez, will once again be able to rely on its massive vote-getting organization, as well as what analysts call its plain old-fashioned "clientelist structure" to mobilize voters on Sunday.

"The president, despite everything, has helped me. I could not be ungrateful," said William Lugo, 65, as he managed the payment of Christmas bonuses that the government says benefits four million people.

"I will vote on Sunday, and if we have to re-elect him, I will be there," he said.