Venezuela's Maduro wins presidential election, but economic pressure unlikely to ease

Two women seen at a polling station in Venezuela on May 20, 2018, during an election ignored by much of the country. PHOTO: AFP

CARACAS, VENEZUELA (NYTIMES) - President Nicolás Maduro won a second term as President of Venezuela, a country in the midst of a historic economic collapse marked by soaring prices, widespread hunger, rampant crime, a failing health system and a large-scale exodus of its citizens.

Electoral officials declared Mr Maduro the victor late on Sunday (May 20), in a contest that critics said was heavily rigged in his favour.

In the capital and around the country, the turnout appeared to be extremely low, reflecting both a call from many opposition leaders for a boycott of the vote and the disillusionment of longtime government supporters.

Voting centres in pro-government strongholds and opposition areas alike often had no lines of voters waiting to cast ballots - a significant change from previous presidential elections, and a sign Venezuelans repudiated the candidacies of both Mr Maduro and the two opposition candidates.

Election officials said Mr Maduro, the political heir of Mr Hugo Chávez, the leftist firebrand who led this oil-rich country until his death in 2013, received 5.8 million votes.

His main rival, Mr Henri Falcón, a former state governor who was once an acolyte of Mr Chávez but broke with him to join the opposition, received 1.8 million votes.

A third candidate, Mr Javier Bertucci, a political novice and an evangelical minister, received 925,000.

Mr Maduro's current term continues until the end of the year; his new term will last six years.

Despite his triumph in a tainted contest, there is little relief in sight for Mr Maduro or the country.

The United States has threatened stricter sanctions, and other countries, especially Colombia and Brazil, have received huge outflows of economic refugees.
Also likely to increase pressure on Mr Maduro's government even before his next term begins: He has largely been cut off from international financing, and the government-run oil industry, which provides virtually all of the country's hard currency, is in free-fall, with plummeting production.

Some within his own movement may point to the low turnout and vote totals and question his leadership.

Mr Maduro has shown no signs so far that he has the ability to solve the country's deep problems and his response to the crisis has often been to crack down harder on adversaries - including the traditional opposition as well as rivals on his side of the political divide.

The official turnout figure was given as 46 per cent.

Recent elections in Venezuela have included charges of fraud, and it was unclear as of Sunday night whether the opposition candidates would challenge the vote count.

The United States and many countries in the region have condemned the election as unfair and anti-democratic and said that they would not recognise the results.

Mr Maduro's victory was certain to set off a new round of infighting and finger pointing within the opposition.

Some blamed Mr Falcón for giving legitimacy to the President's re-election, while others questioned whether the opposition might have missed a chance to displace Mr Maduro, given his falling popularity among his own supporters, who failed to turn out.

Venezuela, which is estimated to have the world's largest oil reserves, is in the throes of one of the worst economic crises in recent history in the Western Hemisphere.

The International Monetary Fund estimates that inflation this year could reach 13,000 per cent, by far the highest rate in the world.

With soaring prices and shortages of basic goods of all kinds, many Venezuelans are malnourished.

It is common to find families who eat just twice a day, and with little protein, fresh fruit or vegetables in those meals.

Around 0.9kg of chicken or beef costs as much as the monthly minimum wage package, which, including food coupons, is worth about US$2.50 (S$3.36).
That is hardly a recipe for a President to win re-election, but Mr Maduro sought to give himself every advantage in Sunday's vote.

The electoral authorities banned the largest opposition political parties from taking part in the election, and key politicians were barred from running.

Brutal repression of anti-government protests, and the arrests of many activists and leaders, has also weakened the opposition.

Electoral authorities also moved up the election to May, allowing little time for the opposition to organise and campaign.

They even eliminated the requirement that voters dip a finger in indelible ink, which is used to keep people from voting more than once.

In response, many opposition leaders called for an election boycott.

Mr Falcón ultimately decided to break with the rest of the opposition and run against Mr Maduro.

Mr Maduro blames the country's problems on what he calls an economic war waged against Venezuela by the United States.

But most economists place the blame on poor government management, corruption and broken policies, like tight controls over foreign exchange, an overvalued currency and price controls on goods.

The government has responded to the crisis by providing people with boxes of food, including powdered milk and pasta, although most people said they arrive irregularly and do not contain nearly enough to sustain a household.

The food boxes have become both an incentive and a threat during the campaign, with many voters fearful that they could be cut off if they do not support the government.

At many polling places on Sunday, people cast their vote and then visited a so-called Red Spot - named for the ruling Socialist Party's colour - set up nearby.
At the Red Spot, voters presented the special identity card needed to receive the food boxes and other services and gave their names to workers who were keeping lists of those who had voted.

Workers at the Red Spots said that there was no effort to pressure voters or link a pro-Maduro vote to future food deliveries.

One of the most striking aspects of the day was the large number of voters who appeared to have stayed away.

"I'm surprised by the low turnout," said Ms Loreima Henríquez, a National Electoral Council employee, who was overseeing a polling place in Dos Caminos, a middle-class area of Caracas.

There were about 4,200 voters registered to cast ballots there, but by 1pm, only 313 had done so.

"We were aware of the calls to abstain from voting, but many fewer people than we expected are coming out," Ms Henríquez said.

Ms Rosa Rodríguez, 50, a former supporter of Mr Chávez and Mr Maduro, who said that this time she voted for Mr Falcón, volunteered to work as a poll watcher.

"People are not voting on both sides and I think this is a silent message that they're giving the country today," said Ms Rodriguez, who lives in a working class area in the centre of Caracas.

"They have to realise that the people are protesting in silence. For me that says it all."

In a slum abutting the main airport outside Caracas, Ms Marielis Idimas, a mother of two, said that she voted for Mr Maduro despite the economic hardships - but she showed more resignation than enthusiasm.

"My life is not good," she said, sitting at a small stand where she sold eggs for 60,000 bolívars each (the currency's devaluation makes that only about 0.81 cents, although it is a vast sum for poor Venezuelans).

"But who lives comfortably now?"

Another slum resident, Ms María García, 63, said that she did not vote because doing so would be supporting a sham.

"I'm not going to be part of this," Ms García said. "I hate everything about this government and I don't want anything to do with them."

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