Venezuelans Line Up for Local Votes Seen as Referendum on Maduro

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Venezuelans have become used to lines for increasingly valueless cash and scarce food. On Sunday, they lined up to show their anger at the polls.

Voters are choosing governors in all 23 of Venezuela’s states, with opponents of President Nicolas Maduro widely expected to win in areas long dominated by his socialist regime. After months of bloody protests that rocked the capital of Caracas, election day began in relative calm despite claims that Maduro’s allies were trying to sway the vote by causing delays and relocating voting stations at the last minute.

Carmen Paredes, a 40-year-old university professor, spent most of the morning waiting in line after her election center in east Caracas was moved about five blocks, a relocation she attributed to mischief. Only half the voting machines were functioning.

“They’re doing this to dishearten us, but it won’t work,” she said. “One way or another we’ll vote.”

Maduro, heir to the office held by strongman Hugo Chavez, called the elections to release tensions after months of rioting, and to dispel accusations that he’s trying to perpetuate his power. The elections seem timed to persuade regional leaders that Venezuela’s six-decade democracy is still alive. But opponents say Maduro’s government won’t empower winners from opposing parties, and graffiti imploring residents to boycott the vote appeared on walls in opposition areas.

Morning Chat

At daybreak Sunday, Maduro released a video showing himself strolling about the white marble halls of the presidential palace, Miraflores, coffee in hand.

“We’re showing that Venezuela is a rigorous democracy, a revolutionary democracy, an exemplary democracy,” he said.

But a tattered economy and empty bellies in a country flush with oil are helping government opponents make inroads in areas that once were bastions of support for Chavez’s socialist project. Members of the opposition say a strong showing may hasten talks leading to a restoration of democracy.

“The governorships are part of the battle of positioning ahead of any potential negotiations,” said Dimitris Pantoulas, a political consultant. “Chavismo is doing everything possible so that the opposition does not win by a wide margin.”

The opposition favors new elections, the release of political prisoners, and accepting humanitarian aid. Maduro’s supporters want a continuation of generous social programs widely seen as unsustainable and a foreign policy hostile to the U.S. and other nations it casts as imperialist.

Janelyn Cortesia, a 34-year-old call-center operator from Caracas’s eastern slums, said she was voting for Maduro’s ally in Miranda state after promises to improve a food-delivery program.

“I’m voting for a better future today,” she said. “It’s what we need, because there is almost nothing available.”

Campaign of Confusion

Polls widely predict that the opposition will win the vast majority of the 23 states; that could allow them access to patronage and government funds. Venebarometro, a Caracas consultancy, said that 52 percent of likely voters favored opposition candidates, compared with 28 percent for Maduro’s allies.

Voting centers are slated to close about 5 p.m., though they will accept voters still standing in line at that time. First results are expected to come late Sunday night and continue to trickle in through Monday morning.

Even with access to vast state resources and media, the ruling socialists seem to be on the defensive, and have to tried to sow confusion.

The National Electoral Council last week caused an uproar by abruptly relocating some 200 voting stations. But the biggest challenge may be the ballot itself. Despite repeated requests, the council has refused to remove unsuccessful opposition primary candidates from the roster, apparently in an attempt to confuse voters. Ballots with a dozen names will contain as many as four who are no longer running.

Even with the promise of a landslide, few expect Maduro’s foes to be able to govern freely. The dramatic crash in oil prices has drained Venezuela’s medical and education systems, and the government has regularly taken over local police forces, and created parallel government enterprise to undercut opponents.

But facing a regime that regularly quashed protests and trampled basic rights, many opponents said participation was a democratic duty,

Luis Isza, a 34-year-old computer technician, saw Sunday’s race as means to demonstrate to the world that the opposition is Venezuela’s dominant political force. “It may only be symbolic, but it’s the only way we have to show our discontent,” he said.

And after five hours in line, much of it in a light drizzle, Carmen Paredes cast her vote.

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