CARACAS (AFP) - Venezuelans vote on Sunday (Dec 6) in tense elections that could see the opposition seize legislative power from the socialist government and which leaders fear may spark violence in the oil-rich, cash-poor nation.
With the country suffering from soaring inflation and poverty, a broad opposition coalition is vying to gain control of the National Assembly and force a change of course by anti-US leader Nicolas Maduro.
That could mark a potential political shift in the Latin American country of 30 million people, which has the world's biggest oil reserves but also widespread poverty.
Or it could lead to political deadlock and even a repeat of riots that killed 43 people last year, analysts and political leaders warn.
After 16 years of government by late president Hugo Chavez and his handpicked successor Maduro, the vote is widely seen as a referendum on their economic policies.
"We will win!" Maduro bellowed at a rally this week, dismissing his opponents as "lazy and inept." He and Chavez invested the country's vast oil wealth in projects to build homes, roads and schools.
But since the mustachioed former bus driver was elected after Chavez's death in 2013, the revolution has faltered as oil prices have plunged.
Families are suffering shortages of basic supplies such as flour and diapers. Soaring inflation has slashed their spending power.
Surveys by Venezuelan pollsters Datanalisis and Venebarometro have indicated the broad opposition coalition, the Democratic Unity Roundtable, is likely to win a majority of the vote.
It was unclear exactly how votes would translate into seats under the system of electoral constituencies, which is considered to favour the government side.
Maduro's critics have accused him of rigging the system of voting districts in his favour. He has dismissed them as stooges of "Yankee imperialism."
International authorities have criticized Maduro for not letting foreign observers monitor the election and various figures have called for a fair vote.
"What we all want is a clean and transparent election," said Colombia's former president Andres Pastrana in Caracas.
"We hope the opposition will publicly agree to accept the results peacefully," he added, after meeting with Venezuela's Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez.
Rodriguez vowed voting would go ahead normally.
"We are a few hours away from elections, with electoral authorities guaranteeing that the Venezuelan people will exercise their popular will," she said.
Polls were due to open at 1030 GMT (6:30pm Singapore time) and close at 0230 GMT.
Authorities said 19 million Venezuelans are eligible to vote and thousands of soldiers will be deployed to keep order.
An opposition win could herald a broader shift in Latin America, where Argentina's leftist government lost a presidential election last month.
But analysts said Venezuela's vote on Sunday will be less decisive, and potentially volatile, since opposition parties have little in common beyond their disdain for Maduro.
His term as president runs until 2019, unless the opposition wins a big enough majority to force him out by constitutional means.
If the opposition wins a smaller majority, Maduro could manipulate the result in his favour or just rule by presidential decree, said analyst Luis Vicente Leon, head of Datanalisis.
"The assembly could seek to impeach the president, but he could try to dissolve the congress," said Leon.
"It would be a very unstable situation."
Maduro has been accused of intimidating opponents. Radical opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez was jailed last year after being convicted of inciting violence in the deadly protests.
Another senior opposition figure, Henrique Capriles, warned opposition radicals against taking to the streets after Sunday's vote.
"Venezuela is a bomb ready to explode," he told AFP.