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Defying global pressure, Maduro seeks re-election in Venezuela

  • Published at 02:47 pm May 20th, 2018
With an image of the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez behind him a Venezuelan citizen casts his vote at a polling station during the presidential election in Caracas, Venezuela, May 20, 2018 Reuters

Maduro's main challenger is former state Governor Henri Falcon, who predicts an upset on the back of some polls showing him ahead and widespread fury among Venezuela's 30 million people at the collapse of their economy

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro was seeking a six-year term on Sunday in a vote condemned by foes as the "coronation" of a dictator and likely to bring fresh foreign sanctions.

With the mainstream opposition boycotting the election, two of his most popular rivals barred from standing and state institutions in loyalists' hands, the 55-year-old former bus driver is expected to win despite his unpopularity.

That could trigger oil sanctions from the US government, and more censure from the European Union and Latin America.

The self-described "son" of Hugo Chavez says he is battling an "imperialist" plot to crush socialism and take over the Opec member's oil wealth. But opponents say the leftist leader has destroyed Venezuela's once-wealthy economy and ruthlessly crushed dissent.

Maduro's main challenger is former state Governor Henri Falcon, who predicts an upset on the back of some polls showing him ahead and widespread fury among Venezuela's 30 million people at the collapse of their economy.

"The day has come to make history and save Venezuela," Falcon, 56, tweeted early on Sunday, urging Venezuelans to vote. During his campaign, he scattered fake $100 bills to symbolize his proposal for replacing the collapsed bolivar currency.

Most analysts believe, however, that Falcon has only a slim chance given anticipated abstention, the opposition split over his break with the boycott, the vote-winning power of state handouts, and Maduro's allies on the election board.

Results are expected by late evening.

In a likely boost for Maduro, attendance appeared low across the country, from polling stations in the wealthier, pro-opposition eastern Caracas to the Andean mountains in the west of the country. The majority of voters interviewed by Reuters said they were casting their ballot for Maduro.

The government has set up so-called "red point" zones close to polling stations so Venezuelans can scan their state-issued 'fatherland card' through which they receive benefits including highly subsidized food boxes and money transfers. Opposition critics say this is a way of scaring impoverished and dependent Venezuelans into voting for the government. Maduro has also promised a "prize" to those who scan their cards after voting.

"They told me to line up with my fatherland card and pass it through the system. This didn't exist before, but I do it now because of the help I get," said Jose Torres, 77, showing off an image of the late Chavez in his wallet after voting in the plains and hills state of Lara.

Further hurting Falcon's chances by splitting the anti-Maduro vote is a third candidate, evangelical pastor Javier Bertucci, who has picked up quite a following on the campaign trail, not least thanks to his free soup handouts.

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