World News

As Venezuela Opposition Shuns Vote, Many Feel It’s a ‘Waste of Time’

Posted December 10, 2017 10:32 p.m. EST

CARACAS, Venezuela — The polls had been open for several hours Sunday and the future of more than 300 mayoralties around the country was at stake. But Carlos Paez and Edgar Martínez, resting between weightlifting sets at a makeshift outdoor gym in downtown Caracas, scoffed at the notion of voting.

“Total waste of time!” exclaimed Paez, a 44-year-old restaurant cook.

“So much deception,” added Martínez, 29, who works as a bartender. “I’m young and I feel this disillusionment with what’s happening. Imagine that!”

They were not alone in their disaffection. Indeed, the election appeared to be a story of absence, told in the emptiness of many voting stations for much of the day and the dearth of any palpable excitement on the streets. But on Sunday night, the national election board said participation had topped 47 percent, surprising some observers.

To many, the results, which were not expected until late Sunday, were a foregone conclusion: domination by President Nicolás Maduro and his United Socialist Party of Venezuela.

The party controls the presidency, the all-powerful Constituent Assembly — the new lawmaking body that Maduro created this summer, while neutering the opposition-controlled National Assembly — and nearly all of the country’s governorships. Now, it needs only to secure the country’s mayoralties to own nearly the entire electoral landscape and further consolidate Maduro’s power as the country prepares for presidential elections next year.

The nation’s major opposition parties have made the job easier.

After the unexpected defeat of most of its candidates in regional elections in October, a broad but fractious alliance of opposition parties announced that it was boycotting the municipal contests to protest what it called a rigged, corrupt electoral system that favored Maduro and his party.

Participation, opposition leaders argued, would serve only to legitimize Maduro’s rule, which they — and some foreign governments — have called a dictatorship.

Early in the day, after casting his vote, Maduro threatened to ban from future elections those political parties that participated in the boycott. “They will disappear from the political map,” he said.

The elections unfolded against a backdrop of economic misery in Venezuela. According to statistics published last week by the National Assembly, inflation in November was nearly 57 percent — above the 50 percent mark that is commonly regarded as the threshold of hyperinflation. Profound shortages of food and medicine, the scarcity of cash and a general breakdown of public services continue to worsen by the day, driving a surge of emigration.

Despite the call for a boycott Sunday, an array of opposition candidates were running, most as independents. Untethered from their parties — and from the scaffolding of support and money that such relationships bring — many of their campaigns barely registered with potential voters, providing little contest against the government-backed candidates of the United Socialist Party.

“I don’t know who any of the opposition candidates are,” said Jesús Gómez, 37, the chief of security for a supermarket chain, who was on his way to vote Sunday in Ocumare del Tuy, a city south of Caracas, the capital.

All he was sure of was that he would vote — an expression of his “rights,” he said — and that he would cast his vote against the Maduro government, even if he suspected that the electoral process would be riddled with fraud.

“Everything’s already prearranged,” he said. “This isn’t a secret at all.”

Throughout the day, many polling stations around the capital had barely a trickle of voters. In past elections, at least in some places, lines of people numbering in the hundreds snaked down the block and wait times stretched for hours.

Opposition voters who turned out in defiance of the boycott said they were compelled by civic duty despite an overarching feeling of futility.

“They are going to win,” Estela Prisco, 69, said of the United Socialist Party’s candidates, while walking a Schnauzer on her way to vote in downtown Caracas.

“But still there are people who come out against them,” she said. “And at the very least they will look and see that there are voters who stand against them.”

Abstention appeared to be so high that in some places pro-opposition voters worried that their side was at risk of losing its grasp on mayoralties that until Sunday had seemed guaranteed.

One such place was El Hatillo, an upper-middle-class municipality in eastern Caracas, where the opposition has controlled the mayor’s office since the election of Maduro’s predecessor, President Hugo Chávez, in 1999. On Sunday, supermarkets had more people standing in line than did polling stations.

“We lost this,” said Carlos Araque, 73, an engineer. “I have never seen this. Only a few are coming to vote.”

Yon Goicoechea, one of the five opposition candidates contending for the mayoralty in El Hatillo, said that widespread abstention and disarray among the opposition assured that the government’s party “will win without fraud.”

Pro-government voters seemed far less anxious about the course of the day, saying that the opposition had only itself to blame for not fully taking advantage of the opportunity.

“That’s called thoughtlessness,” Juan Atencio, 80, a retired hotel administrator, said of the low turnout. “They think we have the elections secured.”

Standing outside a polling center in central Caracas, he said he intended to vote for the socialist party’s candidate in his municipality, Libertador.

Atencio acknowledged that the country was passing through a tenuous, challenging moment but said that changes in political systems were always hard and required perseverance. Parroting Maduro, he blamed foreign governments, including sanctions imposed by the Trump administration, for the country’s economic crisis.

“But we’re going to resist until the last combatant dies,” Atencio said. “And that last combatant has not yet been born.”