Venezuela’s electoral system was being put to the test Sunday, with millions of people casting ballots for thousands of races — the first in four years with major opposition participation following a series of boycotts over unfair conditions.
The contest was being observed by more than 130 international monitors, mostly from the European Union, satisfying a longstanding demand of the opponents of President Nicolás Maduro.
Main opposition parties agreed to participate after the government promised measures to build confidence during now-suspended negotiations between the ruling party and adversaries.
More than 21 million Venezuelans are eligible to vote in over 3,000 contests, including for 23 governors and 335 mayors positions. More than 70,000 candidates entered the races.
“I vote for Venezuela, I don’t vote for any political party,” Luis Palacios, 72, said outside a voting center in the capital of Caracas. “I am not interested in politicians, they do not represent this country. I think Venezuela can improve by participating because, well, we don’t have any other option anymore.”
A man casts his vote during regional elections, at a polling station in Caracas, Venezuela, Sunday, Nov. 21, 2021. Venezuelans go to the polls to elect state governors and other local officials. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)
But not all shared Palacios’ interest in the election. Turnout appeared to be relatively light at several Caracas polling places.
Maduro is not on the ballot. His term ends in 2025. But what is at stake is the legitimacy of the National Electoral Council, which has often been accused of setting conditions favorable to Maduro’s allies. In recent years, the council has disqualified parties and some of the most popular opposition candidates.
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The international observers have been deployed across Venezuela to observe conditions such as fairness, media access, campaign activities and disqualification of candidates. They are expected to release a preliminary report early next week and an in-depth look next year.
It is the first time in 15 years that EU observers are in Venezuela. In previous elections, foreign observation was essentially carried out by multilateral and regional electoral organizations close to the Venezuelan executive.
Venezuelans line up to vote during regional elections, at a polling station in Caracas, Venezuela, Sunday, Nov. 21, 2021. Venezuelans go to the polls to elect state governors and other local officials. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)
“It is very good that they have sent observers so that there is no problem or someone says that there was cheating,” said public hospital worker Pedro Martinez, 56, standing outside an eastern Caracas polling center. “It gives me a little more confidence so that they respect our right to vote and respect our vote because we want this to change.”
Martinez said he votes every election, and this time his country’s economy and health care services are on his mind. He said health care workers earn “practically nothing” and hospitals desperately need supplies and equipment.
Millions of Venezuelans live in poverty, facing low wages, high food prices and the world’s worst inflation rate. The country’s political, social and economic crises, entangled with plummeting oil production and prices, have continued to deepen with the pandemic.
Historically, voter turnout has been low for state and municipal elections, with abstention hovering around 70%.
Regardless of turnout, Sunday’s elections could mark the emergence of new opposition leaders, consolidate alliances and draw the lines to be followed by Maduro’s adversaries, who arrive at these elections decimated by internal fractures, often rooted in their frustration at not being able to knock from 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 (the government believes) should be stopped more, that will have a weight,” said Félix Seijas, director of the statistical research firm Delphos. He added that the results will show who ultimately “is the second force” of the country, and which segment of the opposition represents it.
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In a low-income neighborhood that has been a stronghold of support for the government, about a dozen people looked through lists of identity numbers pasted on a wall to figure out whether they were at the right voting center. There, Carmen Zambrano remarked on the few people waiting to vote.
“I don’t see much harmony,” she said, attributing it to general discontent. Previously, Zambrano said, many more people would head to the polls.
Soldiers line up to vote during regional elections, at a polling station in Caracas, Venezuela, Sunday, Nov. 21, 2021. Venezuelans go to the polls to elect state governors and other local officials. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)
Her frustrations include having to have purchase all the supplies, from medications to syringes, so that her toddler grandchild could be treated for an infection at a hospital two weeks ago. And, she said, neighborhood leaders recently began selling previously free food assistance.
Maduro and First Lady Cilia Flores in televised messages after casting their ballots urged Venezuelans to go out to vote.
“I know that from the vote of the people, decisions will emerge that guide us, that point us to the direction, the destiny of the country,” Maduro said.
He added that the election “will strengthen political dialogue, it will strengthen democratic governance, it will strengthen the capacity to face problems, find solutions.” But in the same remarks to reporters, he said the dialogue with the opposition cannot resume at the moment.
The negotiations were suspended last month following the extradition to the U.S. of a key Maduro ally.
People argue with election officials at a polling station that did not open on time, during regional elections, in the San Agustin neighborhood of Caracas, Venezuela, Sunday, Nov. 21, 2021. Venezuelans go to the polls to elect state governors and other local officials. (AP Photo/Jesus Vargas)
“It was the government of the United States that stabbed in the back the dialogue between the Bolivarian government of Venezuela and the extremist Guaidosista opposition of Venezuela,” he said, referring to opposition leader Juan Guaidó.
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María Meneses stopped by the Caracas polling center where she has voted for the past 40 years. But the 84-year-old was told she had been assigned to a different center this time.
“Please, I need to vote. I want to vote,” Meneses told the poll worker outside an elementary school in a neighborhood that has historically voted for the opposition.
Leaning into a folding grocery cart, she said she would go find her new polling site.
“Many in my neighborhood have left (the country),” she said. “I want to die under this sky.”