Venezuelans voted in an election widely expected to return incumbent President Nicolas Maduro to office amid an opposition boycott.
Maduro, the widely unpopular political heir to the late leftist firebrand Hugo Chavez, has promised an“economic revolution” if re-elected on Sunday, having presided over an implosion of Venezuela’s once oil-rich economy since taking office in 2013.
The 55-year-old is favourite to top the ballot ahead of opposition leadersHenri Falcon andJavier Bertucci.
The winning candidate will begin a six-year term as president in January 2019.Results are expected to be announced late on Sunday local time.
Casting his vote early in the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, Maduro said he would insist on a “dialogue for peace” with the country’s opposition if victorious.
“Your vote decides: ballots or bullets, motherland or colony, peace or violence, independence or subordination,” said the former bus driver and union leader.“It’s offensive when they say the Venezuelan people are falling under dictatorship.”
Hyperinflation, food and medicine shortages, rising crime and broken water, power and transportation networks have sparked violent unrest, and left Maduro with a 75-percent disapproval rating.
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Falcon,an independent, has promised to dollarise wages decimated by rampant inflation, seek assistance for Venezuela’s ailing economy from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and accept humanitarian aid.
Bertucci, anevangelical candidate, has pledged to reshape Venezuelan politics according to “Christian values” and increase foreign investment.
Maduro’s two most popular rivals, Henrique Capriles and Leopoldo Lopez, were barred from running in the election.
Venezuela’s main oppositon coalition, the Democratic Unity Roundtable, has boycotted the election.
The National Electoral Council is widely seen as being aligned with Maduro’s leftist government.
‘Very few people’
About 20 million peopleare eligible to vote in Sunday’s single-round election.
Al Jazeera’s John Holman, reporting from San Cristobal, said early reports indicated voter turnout throughout Venezuela appeared low hours after polls opened.
“Polling stations have been open for a couple of hours now … [but] they are basically empty,”Holman said.
“San Cristobal is a real opposition stronghold so the opposition boycott would have some reflection here in the thought process of citizens, but we have also been to other parts of town [where there is strong government support] and there are very few people at the polling stations.”
Only 34 percent of Venezuelans saidthey would definitely vote in the election, according to Venezuelan polling firm Datanalisis.
Authorities deployed 300,000 soldiers and policemen to protect voting stations, with pro-boycott activists planning scattered protests, Reuters news agency reported.
The ballot – during which voters will also elect state and municipal legislative councils – had been scheduled for December but Venezuela’s National Constituent Assembly, populated by supporters of Maduro, brought it forward.
Opposition candidates allege the move was an attempt to catch them off-guard in order to enhance Maduro’s prospects of winning.
The United States, European Union, and a number of Latin American countries have said they will not recognise the results of the vote.
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Despite having the world’s largest proven oil reserves, Venezuela’s GDP has dropped by 45 percent since Maduro took office, according to the IMF.
Ongoing food and medicine shortages, spiraling crime rates and faltering provision of utilities have sparked growing discontent and unrest among Venezuelans. More than 100 people were killedin protests throughout 2017.
IMF estimates Venezuela’s economy will shrink by 15 percent this year, with unemployment expected to rise to 36 percent by 2022.
Al Jazeera’s Lucia Newman, reporting from Caracas, said “everything from electricity to transportation” is in desperately short supply.
“Most businesses are out of business… The only thing in permanent abundance is the endless queues,” she said.
Maria Barrantes, 62, a retired teacher, agreed.“I am not taking part in this fraud. What we are living through is a disaster.”
Maritza Palencia, 58, said she would vote for “change” as “my four sons fled to Colombia so they could send me money”.
But Rafael Manzanares, 53 and living on government handouts, said he believed Maduro’s claim that “things are bad because of the economic war” against the country.
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