Campaigning begins in Venezuela's disputed presidential poll

Maria Isabel SANCHEZ
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Venezuela goes to the polls on May 20 for a divisive election which is being boycotted by the opposition after their leaders were barred from running

Campaigning in Venuzuela got off to a muted start on Sunday ahead of a divisive presidential poll on May 20 which is being boycotted by the opposition and branded illegitimate by much of the international community.

President Nicolas Maduro, a 55-year-old former bus driver, is running for another six-year mandate with no significant rivals and promising "prosperity" to a country living through one of its worst-ever crises and increasingly isolated.

"I'm not going to vote. It's more of the same," shrugged William Flores, an electrician, who no longer supports the leftist Chavist ideology of the late Hugo Chavez but who doesn't support the opposition either.

"We are hoping for a miracle to lift us out of this desperate situation. I don't see any other way."

This week, the International Monetary Fund described debt-ridden Venezuela's economic collapse as one of the worst in modern history. The oil-rich nation has seen a "spectacular" drop its crude production, which halved over the past 18 months.

It has also been ravaged by hyperinflation, scarcities of basic food and medicine, and skyrocketing violence that has forced nearly a million Venezuelans to flee, with Maduro's policies leaving the country ever more isolated on the international stage.

Even so, his reelection looks very likely.

The opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) is divided and has decided to boycott the vote after its leaders were barred from running. They denounced the vote as a "fraudulent show" aimed at keeping Maduro in power.

- Two challengers -

The only challengers to Maduro are two former Chavez supporters who have distanced themselves from the current government.

One is Henri Falcon, a 56-year old former mayor and state governor who will likely be Maduro's main opponent, after ignoring MUD's calls to join the boycott.

The other is little-known evangelical pastor Javier Bertucci, who runs Venezuela's Maranatha Church.

But most pollsters see it as a two-horse race, with Delphos predicting Maduro will take 42 percent to Falcon's 30 percent. Hinterlaces pollsters see the unpopular president taking 52 percent of the vote against Falcon's 22 percent.

With a solid grip on Venezuela's institutions, Maduro has stepped up the distribution of subsidized foodstuffs and government vouchers in poor areas as well as speeding up voter registration among sympathizers as a form of social control, the opposition says.

"All the help that the president has offered has turned up. He has continued (Chavez's) legacy," said 57-year-old Janeth Guillen, who remains loyal to the late president.

Chavez chose Maduro as his replacement in March 2013.

- 'Abstention is the enemy ' -

But Falcon, who has derided Maduro as "the hunger candidate," is upbeat about polls suggesting 75 percent of voters disapprove of the government and are willing to take their frustrations to the ballot box.

"Either we finish with Maduro or Maduro finishes with Venezuela," Falcon has said.

For him, aligning Venezuela's currency with the US dollar is the only way to resolve the country's chronic hyper-inflation, an approach for which he has taken a lot of flak.

A divisive figure, Falcon has been rejected by Maduro's ruling socialists and by the main opposition. Both sides view him as a traitor.

But he has insisted Venezuela's "main adversary is abstention."

Josefina Romero, a 41-year-old lecturer, said that for the first time in her life, she would not be voting because "the trap has been set so that Maduro will win."

Carolina Duarte, 43, sees things differently. "We have to go out and vote against the government, even though there will be disappointment."

- Vote won't be recognized -

The election was meant to be held at the end of this year, but Maduro's newly formed Constituent Assembly brought it forward to exploit divisions within the opposition in a strategy that appears to have worked.

"The opposition vote has been disabled through adverse electoral conditions and a mistrust of its leadership," said Felix Seijas, director of the Delphos polling firm.

If the vote goes ahead as planned, it looks set to further isolate Maduro and his government.

Last weekend, the United States and more than a dozen Latin American countries warned Venezuela that its presidential election would be seen as illegitimate by the region unless it restored democratic standards.

In a statement at the Summit of the Americas, Washington and the 16-nation Lima Group which counts Latin America's biggest economies, said the poll would be "void of legitimacy and credibility" if it went ahead under current conditions.