Venezuela eyes tense regional vote

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Caracas (AFP)

Venezuelans vote in watershed regional elections Sunday with the opposition set to win a majority of states despite alleged government efforts to impede a high turnout and to confuse voters.

The vote is seen as a test for President Nicolas Maduro and the opposition alike after months of deadly street protests that failed to unseat him earlier this year.

The opposition Democratic Union Roundtable (MUD) coalition called Saturday on Maduro to immediately expel "Nicaraguan advisors" who it said had been brought to Venezuela to practice electoral fraud.

It said they were "specialized in abrupt changes of voting stations, a technique used by the Nicaraguan government to disconcert opposition voters."

The MUD has cried foul over last-minute changes to the locations of 274 polling stations in 16 states from areas where they polled strongly in the 2015 legislative elections.

"If the vote were to be free and fair, the MUD would likely win between 18 and 21 states,' an analysis by the Eurasia Group said.

The vote comes against the backdrop of an International Monetary Fund report in which it sees no end to the economic downturn and suffering of the population.

Venezuela "remains in a full-blown economic, humanitarian, and political crisis with no end in sight," the Fund said in a report on Latin American economies.

The country's economy will have contracted by 35 percent by the end of this year from 2014, and the Fund says the country is headed toward hyperinflation, when prices soar uncontrollably every day for a long period.

It said shortages are taking a huge toll on the Venezuelan people.

"The main risk to the region relates to the humanitarian crisis and ensuing migration of Venezuelans to neighboring countries," it said.

"The number of Venezuelans arriving in Brazilian and Colombian border towns has been rising sharply as the crisis in Venezuela intensifies."

International powers accuse Maduro of dismantling democracy by taking over state institutions in the wake of an economic collapse caused by a fall in the price of oil, its main source of revenue.

Sunday's polls are the first contested by the opposition since the legislative elections which gave it a majority in the assembly.

- Is opposition base motivated? -

But the MUD finds itself having to lift its own discouraged support base. They have seen Maduro's hand strengthened after he faced down four months of protests that killed 125 people, forming a Constituent Assembly packed with his own allies and wresting legislative power from the opposition dominated national assembly.

For Maduro, the polls are an opportunity to give the lie to allegations of dictatorship at home and abroad leveled at him after forming the Constituent Assembly.

Maduro signaled this week that the vote would effectively be a vote in support of the assembly, forcing even its staunchest critics in the opposition to recognize it.

He said governors-elect would have to be "sworn-in and subordinate themselves" to the Assembly, on pain of dismissal.

Even if his socialist party suffers heavily at the polls, the elections could still provide a boost for Maduro, analysts said.

"Though the government will probably find a way to diminish the importance of the results, it will initially recognize the outcome as it seeks to revive stalled talks with the opposition and stave off additional sanctions," the Eurasia analysis said.