On shifts, Venezuelan opposition takes part in the vote as foreign teams observe

CARACAS: With opposition parties participating for the first time since 2017 and European Union observers returning, Sunday’s (November 21) elections in Venezuela represent an early power struggle between the government and rivals in a country that is in economic crisis.

It is estimated that 21 million Venezuelans will go to the polls to elect 23 governors, as well as the mayors and councilors of hundreds of cities.

Polling stations opened at 6 a.m. at 12 noon and results are expected around “two or three in the morning,” a source with the National Electoral Council said.

Lines formed early.

“I have come to exercise my right to vote in a democratic country,” said 74-year-old Jose Casanova, a leftist militant, after casting his vote in a working-class neighborhood in eastern Caracas.

He considers Venezuela “a blessed country despite all its problems.”

Left-wing President Nicolas Maduro, whose highly controversial presidency has left the South American nation with punitive economic sanctions, has sought some measure of relief through careful display of goodwill and democratic intent.

The opposition, which had boycotted the elections for the past three years because they were not free or fair, agreed to participate in Sunday’s votes after receiving a guarantee from the government.

Opposition leaders hope to raise their profile and gain momentum ahead of the 2024 presidential election.

But there seems to be little doubt about the outcome: Experts predict that the Chavist movement that Maduro has led since the death of President Hugo Chavez in 2013 could easily prevail over a divided opposition.

LIMITED OPPOSITION PROFIT

Henrique Capriles, who lost both Chavez’s 2012 and Maduro presidential elections a year later, said opposition divisions will undeniably weigh on that.

“Let’s face it,” he said, “The PSUV (the ruling Socialist Party) is going to win.”

Observers say the opposition could win in up to six states: Tachira, Zulia, Lara, Nueva Esparta, Sucre and Anzoategui.

Caracas is seeking an easing of economic sanctions — particularly from the United States, which does not recognize Maduro’s presidency — in hopes of at least a partial lift of the measures, said Oswaldo Ramirez, an adviser.

With hundreds of millions of dollars of its assets frozen abroad, Venezuela wants to make it easier to sell its petroleum — the US has historically been its largest customer — and end import restrictions.

The government has made a calculated series of concessions, opened negotiations with the opposition and invited election observers from the EU, the United Nations and the US-based Carter Center.

The EU is sending its first monitoring mission in 15 years as Caracas – long pricked about its “sovereignty” – has had to swallow its pride.

“The regime needs this mission” to give its election credibility, an opposition member said.

After serving the 2018 presidential election and the 2020 legislative votes, the opposition abandoned its boycott strategy but failed to agree on the candidate lists.

Juan Guaido, who is recognized by the US and some 50 other countries as Venezuela’s president after the disputed 2018 elections, has said the opposition must “unite the struggle”.

But he said he will not vote, and that “it is certain that Maduro is and will remain illegitimate”.

Maduro, who clearly enjoys the divisions of the opposition, has called for “big elections so that this will be a big victory for democracy”.

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