Weary Venezuelans go to polls with record low turnout predicted

Caracas (AFP) –


Venezuelans went to polling stations Sunday to elect municipal council members, but analysts predicted record low turnout, citing mistrust in the process, the banning of opposition parties and widespread exhaustion amid the ongoing socioeconomic crisis.

The elections come one month before President Nicolas Maduro begins his second six-year term after winning an election in May termed illegitimate by political opponents, the European Union, the United States and most of Latin America.

Voting was suspended in the southern city of Gran Sabana, where an indigenous man died Saturday in an apparent military operation against illegal mining, the National Electoral Council (NEC) reported.

But NEC president Tibisay Lucena said for the most part voting was taking place with "complete normality" in the rest of Venezuela. She provided no participation figures.

Voting ends at 22H00 GMT Sunday, although the closing time is often extended.

Interior Minister Nestor Reverol said 150,000 police and military personnel had been deployed to provide security at the centers.

Maduro hopes to strengthen his institutional control as Brazilians choose 2,459 members for 335 city councils. The opposition now controls a quarter of those councils.

Felix Seijas, head of the Delphos polling firm, predicted that pro-government candidates would "capture the majority of the municipal chambers, with a historic level of voter abstention."

Maduro's path appears clear, after the main opposition parties were disqualified by the NEC.

The governing Socialist Party urged people to vote. But lines were short at polling stations in Caracas, following a campaign that saw scant paid advertising.

"Why vote if they've already won it all?" asked hairdresser Leidy Sivira, 30, a Caracas resident.

- Power and loyalty -

The opposition has accused Maduro of bending the electoral and judicial authorities to do his will, even as top military leaders regularly declare their "loyalty."

On the eve of the election, the Venezuelan Episcopal Conference said the government's actions "in different public domains do not guarantee impartiality or truth."

Sunday's was the last in a series of votes called by the governing Constituent Assembly, which effectively displaced the National Assembly, the only power in opposition hands.

The Constituent Assembly was created last year at a time when months of opposition protests, often harshly put down, left 125 people dead.

After the four major opposition parties refused to take part in the presidential elections of May 20 -- calling them fraudulent -- the NEC banned them from this Sunday's election.

The abstention rate then reached a 60-year high of 54 percent.

- Crisis and isolation -

The election takes place as Venezuela's economy spirals out of control, with severe food and medicine shortages and an eye-popping 1.35 million percent inflation rate, according to the International Monetary Fund.

Since 2015 at least 2.3 million Venezuelans have fled the country, according to United Nations figures.

Efforts to isolate the Maduro government have grown. Peru has said it will ask the 12 members of the pro-democracy Lima Group to break relations with Venezuela from January 10, when Maduro takes office.