CARACAS, Dec 7 — Venezuelans voted yestrday in legislative elections set to tighten President Nicolas Maduro's grip on power and further weaken his US-backed opposition rival Juan Guaido, who is leading a boycott of the polls he calls a fraud.
The boycott by the main opposition parties meant there was no doubt of victory for Maduro's ruling Socialist Party, giving it control of an expanded 227-seat National Assembly -- the only institution not in its hands.
Maduro told reporters after voting in Caracas' main military barracks that it was time to end the opposition's domination of the Assembly responsible, he said, for “the plague of sanctions, cruelty, pain and suffering.”
Turnout throughout the day was low, however, with many polling stations empty or with few people in line.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo denounced the polls as “a fraud and a sham” engineered by Maduro.
Washington, Guaido's main ally, is leading pressure to oust Maduro with economic sanctions, including an oil embargo in force since April 2019.
“The results announced by the illegitimate Maduro regime will not reflect the will of the Venezuelan people,” wrote Pompeo on Twitter.
The Organisation of American States said it will not recognize the result.
Maduro called on the opposition “with one voice, to ask the new US government of Joe Biden to lift all the sanctions.”
The election, contested by about 14,000 candidates from more than 100 parties, comes with the country in a deep political and economic crisis — suffocated by runaway inflation, paralysed in endless queues for petrol, lacking water and gas supplies, and afflicted by sudden power cuts.
Since November 2019, inflation has reached 4,000 per cent.
Venezuela has been hard-hit by the Covid-19 pandemic, and voters were required to wear masks inside polling stations, where the floors bore markings to ensure distancing was maintained.
“Those who abstain are wrong because how can you let others decide for you? You have to go out and vote!” 70-year-old Fany Molina said as she voted in a school in the center of the capital.
The longest lines were in Socialist Party bastions such as the 23 de Enero neighborhood in Caracas.
In some cities, however, there were more people joining the ever-present lines at gas stations than to vote, a reflection of the country's crippling economic crisis.
“This is a humiliation, I'm not going to vote,” Jose Alberto told AFP after waiting for hours at a gas station.
Maduro, a former bus driver who became president on the death of his mentor Hugo Chavez in 2013, was re-elected in 2018 in fraud-tainted polls — also boycotted by opposition parties — a victory that much of the international community branded illegitimate.
The United States, the European Union and many Latin American countries have long blamed Venezuela's crippling economic crisis on Maduro's repression and misrule.
Instead, they backed Guaido when the National Assembly speaker proclaimed himself interim president in January of last year.
Guaido, 37, called on voters to stay at home on grounds that "free and fair" conditions for holding elections do not exist.
“Maduro's objective isn't even to gain legitimacy,” he told AFP in an interview this week, adding that the goal was instead to simply wipe out all semblance of democracy.
Guaido and his allies plan a week-long plebiscite from Monday seeking public support to prolong the mandate of the current National Assembly until "free, verifiable and transparent" elections can be held.
However, the results will not be binding, as Maduro exercises control of the country's institutions, including the Supreme Court and the powerful military.
Initial enthusiasm that greeted Guaido's push for power has waned, and critics now see his plebiscite ploy as a desperate gamble.
Defeat is likely to leave Guaido increasingly isolated, analysts say — not least because he will lose the leadership of the National Assembly, on which he based the legitimacy of his presidential ambitions.
Maduro's expected victory will be greeted by his foreign allies Russia and China as lending his regime legitimacy, as well as a legal framework to their agreements that help circumvent US and EU sanctions, analysts say.
The electoral authority, appointed by the Maduro-friendly Supreme Court, said more than 20 million people are eligible to vote in the polls.
Still, opposition dissidents who criticise Guaido for calling the boycott will take part in the election, despite being accused of lending Maduro legitimacy.
“They are going to represent the new opposition after January 5” when the new legislature takes office, said political scientist Jesus Castillo. — AFP