Venezuela votes in regional elections under international gaze

Updated 19 minutes ago

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) – Under the watchful eye of international observers, Venezuelans voted on Sunday for thousands of local races in an election which, for the first time in four years, included a major opposition turnout , a decision that divided the already fractured bloc facing the president. Nicolas Maduro.

More than 130 international observers, mostly from the European Union, deployed across the South American country to take note of electoral conditions such as fairness, access to media, campaign activities and disqualification candidates. Their presence was part of a series of measures designed to build confidence in Venezuela’s long-tarnished electoral system, but turnout was still low.

“It gives me a little more confidence that they respect our right to vote and respect our vote because we want that to change,” hospital worker Pedro Martinez, 56, said of the observers’ work. Yet he understood why few people were lining up at the polling center in a neighborhood in eastern Caracas that generally votes against Maduro and his allies: opposition leaders “fight each other.”

“This split in the opposition leads to few people (voting),” said Martinez, for whom his country’s economy and health services led the election. “The opposition has to work very hard to gain the trust of the people.”

More than 21 million Venezuelans were eligible to vote in more than 3,000 contests, including 23 governors and 335 mayors. More than 70,000 candidates registered for the races.

The results were expected Sunday evening.

Historically, voter turnout has been low for state and municipal elections, with abstention hovering around 70%. Regional competitions do not normally attract much attention beyond the country’s borders, but Sunday was different due to measures taken by Maduro’s regime and his opponents ahead of the elections.

The predominantly pro-Maduro National Assembly in May appointed two well-known opponents to the leadership of the National Electoral Council, including an activist who was jailed for participating in actions to destabilize the government. This is the first time since 2005 that the Venezuelan opposition has more than one member on the board of directors of the five-person electoral body.

In August, representatives of Maduro’s government and allies of opposition leader Juan Guaidó began a formal dialogue, led by Norwegian diplomats and hosted by Mexico, to find a common path out of the political deadlock in their country. At the end of the month, the opposition’s decision to participate was announced. For months, Maduro’s representatives had also had behind-the-scenes talks with allies of former opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles.

Maduro agreed to allow a large presence of international observers, satisfying an opposition request. The EU, motivated by the talks in Mexico, accepted the invitation from Venezuelan officials. But those talks were put on hold last month following the extradition to the United States of a key Maduro ally.

This is the first time in 15 years that EU observers have visited Venezuela. In previous elections, foreign observation was mainly carried out by multilateral and regional electoral organizations close to the Venezuelan executive. They are expected to release a preliminary report on Tuesday and an in-depth review next year.

Millions of Venezuelans live in poverty, facing low wages, high food prices and the world’s worst rate of inflation. The country’s political, social and economic crises, linked to falling oil production and prices, continued to worsen with the pandemic.

“I vote for Venezuela, I do not vote for any political party,” Luis Palacios, 72, said in front of a voting center in the capital Caracas. “I am not interested in politicians, they do not represent this country. I think Venezuela can improve by participating because, well, we have no other option. “

Regardless of turnout, Sunday’s elections could mark the emergence of new opposition leaders, consolidate alliances and draw lines for Maduro’s opponents, who arrive in these elections decimated by internal fractures, often rooted in their frustration at not being able to strike at power the heirs of the late President Hugo Chávez.

“What we are going to see is a fight for second place because second place will symbolically mean which opposition (according to the government) should be the most arrested, this will have a weight”, said Félix Seijas, director of the cabinet of ‘Delphos statistical studies. before the elections. He added that the results will show who ultimately “is the second force” in the country, and which segment of the opposition represents it.

Maduro and First Lady Cilia Flores in televised messages after voting urged Venezuelans to go and vote.

He said the elections “will strengthen political dialogue, strengthen democratic governance, strengthen the capacity to face problems and find solutions.” But in the same remarks to reporters, he said dialogue with the opposition cannot resume at this time.

“It was the United States government that stabbed in the back the dialogue between the Bolivarian government of Venezuela and the extremist Guaidosista opposition in Venezuela,” he said, referring to Guaidó, that the United States United recognize it as the rightful leader of South America. country.

“They have to answer for this kidnapping and at the moment we believe there are conditions, we will announce it to the country,” Maduro said, referring to the detention and extradition of his ally Alex Saab, who ‘he considers a kidnapping, arguing that Saab was a humanitarian diplomat when he was arrested in Cape Verde.

The United States has imposed economic sanctions on the Venezuelan government, Maduro and some of its allies, including Saab. The change of leadership in the electoral council and the government’s participation in the dialogue in Mexico were seen as steps to seek better relations with the Biden administration.

Guaidó on Twitter called the election Maduro’s attempt “to put the crisis into perspective and normalize.”

“There are no conditions for free and fair elections in Venezuela,” he said in a video tweeted ahead of the elections. “The reasons are obvious. The electoral power in Venezuela is not independent, it is protected by the dictatorship.

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