CARACAS, Venezuela – Venezuelans will choose hundreds of mayors on Sunday in elections pitting candidates backed by President Nicolas Maduro against a fractured opposition still bruised by a poor showing in recent gubernatorial voting.
The ballots for local leaders in 335 city halls across the oil-rich nation are the final national elections before presidential elections next year in which Maduro is expected to run.
Voting takes place against a backdrop of soaring inflation, shortages of food and medicine, and charges that Maduro's government has undermined Venezuela's democracy by imprisoning dissidents and usurping the powers of the opposition-controlled Congress. The economic and political crises have caused the socialist president's popularity to plunge but the opposition has largely been unable to take advantage.
Three of the four biggest opposition parties are boycotting Sunday's mayoral races, crying foul after steep losses in elections of the country's governors in October.
The opposition had hoped to ride Maduro's unpopularity to gains but instead suffered a setback when its candidates won just five of 23 gubernatorial races. Opposition leaders said government tampering slanted the outcomes.
The anti-government coalition's divide widened when four of its winning candidates took their oath before the pro-government constitutional assembly
The opposition's dividing line falls between those that don't want to validate what they call a rigged electoral system and others who say they're running in protest of an undemocratic process.
Political analysts say they doubt the opposition can rally behind a challenger to Maduro next year.
Sunday's voting ends a turbulent year for Venezuela, a country marred by deadly street protests that left 120 dead and economic sanctions by the Trump administration that come as it seeks to refinance massive international debt. The country holds the world's largest oil reserves, but it has been battered by the fall in crude prices and low production.
Maduro enraged the opposition and consolidated his power earlier this year when he created a national constitutional assembly with unlimited powers that include rewriting the nation's constitution. Its powers overrode Congress, where voters had given the opposition a majority of seats and led to charges that Venezuela was increasingly undemocratic.