Opposition vies for landmark victory in polarized Venezuela

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Elections in Venezuela on Sunday could tilt a majority of the states’ 23 governorships back into opposition control for the first time in nearly two decades of socialist party rule — though the government says the newly elected governors will be subordinate to a pro-government assembly.
The election is being watched closely as an indicator of how much support President Nicolas Maduro and the socialist movement founded by his predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez, maintain amid soaring inflation and crippling food and medical shortages that continue to wreak havoc in Venezuelans’ daily lives.
Anti-government candidates were projected in polls to win more than half the races, but this success depended heavily on their ability to motivate disenchanted voters.
Socialist party candidates, meanwhile, urged Venezuelans to ensure that Chavez’s legacy and social programs are kept alive.
“We are going to the governor’s office to take care of the problems in Miranda (state),” Hector Rodriguez, the socialist candidate in the nation’s second-largest state, said at a recent campaign appearance. “So that the future of our children is safer, more dignified and more joyous.”
Months of anti-government protests this year left at least 120 dead, and a new pro-government constitutional assembly is ruling with virtually unlimited powers.
Maduro has warned that new governors will have to take a loyalty oath submitting to the authority of the assembly, which is re-writing the constitution, something that opposition contenders vow not to do. Opposition leaders consider the assembly illegal.
With few checks and balances remaining, an increasing number of foreign leaders are calling Venezuela a dictatorship.
The opposition has accused the National Electoral Council of trying to suppress turnout among its base, noting it moved to relocate more than 200 voting centers at the last minute.
Former Congresswoman Maria Corina Machado said she would refuse to participate in an election convoked by the constitutional assembly, which she and many others do not recognize.
“I am not going to vote,” Machado told the news outlet Diario Avance. “But I think every Venezuelan should do what their conscience dictates.”
In the aftermath of the protests, many opposition supporters have grown discouraged about the possibility of change. Others are upset at leaders they see as disorganized and unable to decide on a strategy to loosen Maduro’s hold on power.
An opposition victory would be no guarantee of significant change to the balance of power. After opposition candidates won a majority in congress in 2015, other branches such as the government-stacked Supreme Court and later the constitutional assembly essentially neutralized its lawmaking powers.
“The government can recognize some losses and gains by the opposition,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue. “But then it uses all the instruments at its disposal to usurp any authority and render them impotent.”
Associated Press writer Christine Armario reported from Bogota, Colombia.