Weary Venezuelans reject 'Maduro's circus'

Caracas (AFP) –


Fed up with years of acute deprivation and deeply distrustful of the government, a record number of Venezuelans declined to vote in the election that saw unpopular President Nicolas Maduro returned to office.

It was "an historic demonstration of civil disobedience," said Gustavo Le Moire, a retiree and supporter of the opposition.

Sunday's poll was boycotted by the main opposition coalition and widely condemned by the international community, including the United States which denounced it as a "sham."

Maduro won 68 percent of the vote, far ahead of his nearest rival, former army officer Henri Falcon, with 21 percent.

The result gave Maduro a new mandate to stay in office until 2025.

But it failed to provide the socialist leader with the legitimacy he hoped for, as 54 percent of the electorate declined to vote -- the highest abstention rate since the start of the country's democracy in 1958.

"It was militant abstentionism, an explicit demonstration of discontent," said Le Moire, as he celebrated the low turnout on Monday with about 20 other opposition supporters.

"I did not want to vote in this election as I saw that it's a circus, Maduro's circus."

Analysts had predicted a high abstention rate given the opposition boycott and the apathy and discontent in a large section of the population.

Venezuelans are reeling under a deepening crisis, with hyperinflation projected by the International Monetary Fund to reach 13,800 percent this year and dire shortages of food and medicine.

Hundreds of thousands of people have fled the country to escape the growing deprivation.

Many believe the result was known in advance.

"Who would vote for this show?" asked Elvis Ramirez, a street vendor.

"We knew that Maduro was going to win whatever happened, by cheating using the Carnets de la Patria," he said, referring to electronic cards issued by the government which give people the right to benefits.

- 'Nothing will change' -

Before the election, Maduro had promised prizes to those who cast ballots and who then registered at special centers using their cards.

Falcon and another candidate, evangelist Javier Bertucci, accused the government of using the cards to manipulate the vote.

Some also refused to cast ballots as they felt the other candidates were unconvincing.

"I did not vote," said Yajaira Arroyo, a vegetable seller in the Caracas shantytown of Petare. "Nothing will change for us whoever wins."

The high abstention rate was a sharp departure from other polls in Venezuela, where participation was more than 90 percent in the first four elections that followed the fall of the Marcos Perez Jimenez dictatorship (1952-1958).

When Maduro narrowly defeated Henrique Capriles in 2013, more than 76 percent of the electorate cast ballots.

For Mirta Guedez, professor at the Central University in Caracas, the record abstention level showed that the election was just "a farce to satisfy" Maduro and keep him in power.

However, Angela Blanco, a 28-year-old physiotherapist, said she had voted.

"I think it was a mistake to abstain," said the woman, who has been unemployed for two years.

But she said she felt very alone on Sunday.

"When I arrived at the voting center, it was empty, the polling officials were asleep."