Venezuelans were voting on Sunday in parliamentary elections expected to place the country’s only opposition-controlled government institution in the hands of President Nicolas Maduro’s Socialist Party.
“The day has come to vote for the fatherland, peace and the future”, Maduro said.
More than 20 million people are eligible to elect 277 members of the National Assembly, an increase of 110 lawmakers compared to the outgoing parliament. First results are expected on Monday.
The main opposition parties are boycotting the elections, headed by opposition leader and parliamentary speaker Juan Guaido who entered a power struggle with Maduro in January 2019. Dozens of countries recognize him as Venezuela’s interim president.
Guaido on Twitter again called on his supporters to stay home, saying “the dictatorship does not want to conduct an election, but destroy the hopes of a country.”
“The election is a fraud by the dictatorship led by Nicolas Maduro and will make the crisis in our country only worse”, wrote Julio Borges, the foreign minister of Guaido’s counter-government on Twitter.
Maduro, who won a second term in 2018 elections widely criticized as undemocratic, has presided over an economic meltdown – including hyperinflation, acute goods shortages and a plunge in oil production – which has driven about 5 million Venezuelans to flee abroad.
He has also cracked down on the opposition, with UN investigators accusing the government of grave human rights violations, including thousands of killings by security forces.
The European Union refused to send observers to monitor the vote, which the United States and the Organization of American States also criticized as lacking democratic guarantees.
Maduro pledged to resign if the opposition won the elections – a statement critics interpreted as reflecting his certainty of a resounding victory.
Guaido is seen as weakened after his confrontational strategy against Maduro failed to oust the president. He is now also expected to lose control of the National Assembly.
More moderate opposition parties are participating in the elections amid uncertainty about the extent to which they could challenge the government in parliament and replace the Guaido camp as the country’s main opposition.
Guaido’s future will partly depend on whether the US changes its policy on Venezuela after president-elect Joe Biden takes office.
The National Assembly had previously been sidelined by the pro-government Constituent Assembly, which Maduro created in 2017 and whose term is due to expire in December.
The elections are taking place amid safety measures, after the authorities confirmed more than 100,000 coronavirus infections.