CARACAS: Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro is seeking a new six-year mandate — and despite crippling hyperinflation and widespread shortages of food and medicine, he is widely expected to win it.
Leaders of the nation’s beleaguered opposition called to boycott the vote in protest after key leaders were barred from running. Critics fear that even if an anti-government candidate wins, electoral officials will change the result.
Still, the president’s popularity ratings are so low that even with a state apparatus doing everything in its power to ensure victory, a surprise outcome can’t be ruled out.
Here’s a look at what to watch during this Sunday’s vote:
WHO’S ON THE BALLOT?
Reflecting his political dominance, Maduro’s face is on the ballot 10 times under the banner of several parties supporting his candidacy.
His main challenger is Henri Falcon, a former governor and one-time acolyte of the late President Hugo Chavez. Falcon broke with the main opposition coalition by deciding to run and some polls indicate he has a double-digit lead over Maduro. But he faces widespread voter apathy and distrust among Venezuelans who are skeptical of his “Chavista” past.
Javier Bertucci, a TV evangelist who has been giving out free soup at rallies, is also running.
WHY ARE OPPOSITION PARTIES BOYCOTTING?
Venezuela’s main opposition coalition is calling on voters to stay away from the polls to protest what it considers unfair electoral conditions designed to ensure a Maduro win.
Though traditionally held in the fall, this year’s vote was pushed up, giving the opposition less time to campaign. Opposition leaders say the absence of international observers like the United Nations also leaves room for fraud.
Last year, the company that supplies Venezuela’s electronic voting machines said the tally in a crucial vote for an all-powerful constitutional assembly was off by at least 1 million, sowing further doubt about results.
WILL THE US RECOGNIZE RESULTS?
The US has led a growing chorus of foreign governments vowing not to recognize the vote.
The Trump administration has already slapped dozens of Venezuelan officials with sanctions and barred Americans from issuing new credit to what it calls Maduro’s “dictatorship.” Next up could be far more crippling oil sanctions — a move that could make it even more difficult for Maduro to pull Venezuela out of a recession now deeper than the Great Depression in the 1930s.
WHAT HAPPENS IF MADURO WINS?
If Maduro wins he will still face a governability crisis as many foreign nations refuse to recognize the result and his government struggles to put a halt to collapsing oil production and spiraling hyperinflation.
With a fresh mandate, he could also move forward with adjustments to tighten his grip on power and silence critics.
Facing few prospects at home, the number of Venezuelans choosing to flee could also spike. More than 1 million Venezuelans have already fled in the last two years, straining countries like Colombia, where at least 3,000 migrants arrive each day.
FALCON’S DOLLAR PLAN
Some polls put Falcon more than 10 points ahead of Maduro. One of his signature proposals is a pitch to adopt the dollar as Venezuela’s currency. He argues it’s the fastest way to halt hyperinflation expected to reach 13,000 percent this year and stabilize the economy.
He also proposes raising the minimum wage to $75 a month — about 25 times the current amount.
Similar policies have worked in Panama, El Salvador and Ecuador, which was facing runaway inflation when it adopted the dollar in 2000.
Polls show the proposal is popular with about two-thirds of Venezuelans, though skeptics are hesitant about surrendering control of monetary policy to the Federal Reserve, and recall that an effort by Argentina to peg its currency to the dollar quelled one crisis in 1991 but helped lead to another in 2002.