Venezuela's socialist party risks unprecedented defeat

Venezuelans are stockpiling food and putting off plans as the South American country brims with excitement and dread ahead of elections that could hand the opposition control of congress for the first time since 1998. Once-loyal supporters of the late Hugo Chavez appear to be tiring of high crime, widespread shortages and triple-digit inflation.

The socialists currently hold 99 of Venezuela's 167 legislative seats but some estimates have the opposition coalition within grasping distance of a two-thirds majority, an outcome that would breathe life into threats to recall Chavez's heir, President Nicolas Maduro, and back up claims that his party's mandate is crumbling.

It's also possible government opponents could win the popular vote by a landslide, but fail to gain that super-majority due to a voting system that favors less populated rural districts over opposition-leaning urban areas.

Opposition leaders, emboldened by polls giving them a 30-point lead in voter supporter, are warning that a loss Sunday could mean only that the government has committed vote fraud.

Maduro's allies, meanwhile, ridicule the opposition for appearing to take a victory lap before ballots have been cast, a prelude to what they have long denounced as a U.S.-backed plot to undo Chavez's revolution.

At a weekend rally, Maduro shouted that he would "never surrender the revolution."

"If the hard-core right-wingers win on Dec. 6, prepare for chaos, violence and protests that overwhelm this country," he said.

The mounting tension has spilled into violence in recent weeks, with opposition candidates complaining of armed men surrounding their caravans and beating their aides.

The fatal shooting of an opposition politician at a campaign rally last week increased already high levels of anxiety. Many Venezuelans are putting their lives on hold until after the election, delaying business travel, putting off decisions and even holding back on taking cars in for repairs. On Saturday, shoppers with hand trucks mobbed a trading center where black market goods are sold, saying they were stockpiling pantry items just in case.

The socialist party, which has won every national election except a 2007 constitutional referendum that would have expanded Chavez's powers, is trying hard to project a sense of electoral invincibility. "Seventeen years of victory," runs one ad tagline.

Some of its tactics, including barring prominent opponents from running and handing out goodies like Chinese-made tablet computers, have drawn rebukes from the U.S. and other foreign governments who say the playing field is tilted.

"We see these tricks with every election, but this year they've turned up the volume," said Luis Lander, director of the non-partisan watchdog group Venezuela Electoral Observatory.

Unlike past Venezuelan elections, which drew legitimacy from international monitoring, the only foreign delegation looking on this time is from the Union of South American Nations, a regional bloc that critics say lacks the experience and objectivity to mediate any messy fight over results.

The ruling party is doing all it can to tap into the deep love many Venezuelans still feel for Chavez, widely seen as the first leader to share the country's oil bounty with the masses. On Sunday, some voters will cast ballots in polling centers called "Pure Blood of Chavez" and "Chavez's Genius."

Government supporter Martha Rivera, an architect, is nervous that Sunday could undo Chavez's programs. "If the opposition takes the National Assembly, they'll use their foothold to stage a coup," she said. "We'd lose all the social advances we've made."

The opposition has a totemic figure of its own: jailed leader Leopoldo Lopez, who was sentenced to more than a decade in prison in connection with a wave of anti-government protests in 2014. His hand-written notes from jail feature in opposition ads and his declarations are read out by his wife at campaign rallies.

If the opposition wins, it will try to free Lopez and other leaders it considers political prisoners. The coalition has also promised to force Maduro to loosen his grip on institutions like the Supreme Court and National Electoral Council. And a hardline wing would push for a presidential recall campaign.

Aside from that, the coalition has made few concrete policy proposals, instead focusing on anger with the ruling party.

That discontent is evident even in socialist strongholds like Caucaguita, a hilltop neighborhood of zinc-roofed shacks in Caracas. There, the opposition is pressing to capture a district now represented by the wife of the National Assembly's powerful leader, Diosdado Cabello.

Hairdresser Jesus Toledo is among voters defecting from socialism over quality of life issues, including lack of running water and inconsistent electricity. He had been campaigning for the opposition, but says he stopped after a fellow Caucaguita organizer was killed in what some neighbors believe was political retaliation.

Toledo neighbor Marta Pacheco continues to campaign despite fears for her safety.

"Chavez helped me a lot. I certainly can't deny it," she said in the small, tidy apartment she shares with her eight children and grandchildren. "But I have to take a stand now for my family's future."