MAIQUETIA, Venezuela — Venezuelans vote Sunday in state elections seen as a test of President Nicolás Maduro's willingness to share power. But with polls showing the ruling socialists at risk of landslide losses, the authoritarian government appears to be falling back on a trifecta of tactics.
Manipulation, confusion and fear.
Two and a half months after the creation of a super-congress that gave the government nearly absolute power, Maduro has called the vote for state governors clear evidence that democracy remains alive here. But opposition leaders see a dirty campaign by the Venezuelan government, which President Trump has denounced as a "socialist dictatorship."
State media is airing almost round-the-clock supportive coverage of pro-government candidates, while portraying their challengers as hypocritical and inept. All candidates, meanwhile, are being limited to four minutes of political ads per day on independent networks that now survive by self-censoring.
As often happened during the reign of President Hugo Chávez — who named Maduro his successor before his death in 2013 — food baskets are being doled out to hungry voters at pro-government rallies. In a move seen as purposely misleading, the ballots for Sunday's election will include a host of candidates who lost in the primaries and are not supposed to be running. This week, the government abruptly announced that it would relocate some voting centers for "security reasons." Opposition leaders said the move involved 205 locations in heavily anti-government districts in 16 states.
That, critics say, amounts to manipulation and confusion.
And then there's fear.
Here in Vargas, a coastal state just north of Caracas, for instance, the brother of opposition candidate José Manuel Olivares was detained last week by intelligence police for allegedly stealing a car — a charge his family denies. While stumping for votes, the candidate is often shadowed, he said, by state agents.
On a recent afternoon in the narrow streets of a seaside slum, Olivares, an oncologist, was going door to door, shaking hands and kissing cheeks. As he walked up to one cement house, a woman watched him nervously from her window before scurrying out of view.
When he knocked, she answered, begging photographers following Olivares to lower their cameras.
"You see?" he said, wiping sweat off his brow after a short talk with the woman. "She's scared. They think they'll lose whatever the government gives them — even their jobs, if they're public workers."
Winning candidates from the opposition probably will find their powers restrained. Maduro has said that all governors will come under the authority of the Constituent Assembly, the government-controlled super-congress created in a July vote marred by allegations of massive fraud. That body is likely to make life tough for any governor who is not in line with Maduro.
Yet the vote still is seen as a key test. If turnout is high, polls suggest the opposition could capture governorships in up to 19 of Venezuela's 23 states. Analysts are watching to see whether the government faces allegations of vote-rigging similar to those that emerged during the July election. Despite the polls, Maduro last weekend said his party is "expecting a historic success."
"There's a chance we might win all of the states, the 23 of them," he said.
Given their strategy of subordinating governors to the government-controlled assembly, authorities might risk little by allowing a clean vote — while gaining much from the optics. The government may be calculating that such an event could defuse international pressure and appease its domestic opponents.
"I suspect the government would use a defeat as a kind of victory — to try to push back against the evidence that it's taking total power," said Guillermo Zubillaga, head of a working group on Venezuela at the Americas Society/Council of the Americas, a business and educational organization based in New York.
Still, the election is an important bellwether for the opposition, which largely has failed to sustain the large-scale street protests that rocked the nation earlier this year. The activists' concern now is that government tactics — and a general sense of helplessness among voters — may depress turnout Sunday.
In a text message to The Washington Post, Ernesto Villegas, Venezuela's communications minister, called the opposition allegations "a deja vu."
"In each election they appeal to the same stories," he said. "And when they win some posts, they rapidly forget about the fraud that supposedly was about to be committed."
He added: "What's substantial is that in this unusual 'dictatorship' led by Maduro, there's an election in every state in the country. The opposition registered candidates for every post. . . . Those complaints are fig leaves to cover the truth: participating in elections. The opposition is denying its own argument. In Venezuela, there's no dictatorship."
Maduro is deeply unpopular, in part due to a severe economic crisis brought on by declining oil prices and what many view as government mismanagement. Recent polls show the president's approval rating at 23 percent. But opposition leaders also have lost support because of infighting and alleged disorganization. Some critics have pilloried them for even participating in the state elections, arguing that the move is validating the government and playing into Maduro's hands.
Opposition leaders respond that by running, they are providing hope to Venezuelans, who are enduring the world's highest inflation rate as well as severe shortages of food and medicine.
"If people understand that with these elections they're moving one step forward to overthrow Maduro, they'll vote," said opposition candidate Olivares.
Vargas state has been a pro-government bastion since Chávez's rise in 1999. It is home to a massive number of public employees because of its port and airport, as well as once-prominent government-owned companies.
But most of those state operations are now badly run-down or broke. In addition, there has been a sharp decline in tourists, who once filled local hotels. A large part of the population now struggles to survive off government benefits.
Olivares sees a possible window here. Five years ago, when he ran unsuccessfully for governor, he was not even able to enter the slums.
"People would chase us out with rocks and insults," Olivares said. "What you're seeing today was unthinkable back then."
He has built support in part by taking a page from the government's playbook — establishing eight public kitchens funded by private donations that each serve daily lunches to 100 to 150 children.
As he campaigned in the streets recently, desperation was evident. People dragged Olivares to ill family members and handed him unfilled prescriptions. At one point during his visit to a slum here, residents took him to the home of an elderly woman whose foot was covered by a dark bruise.
"I have a venous ulcer, and I can't treat it, doctor," she said, adding that her medicine was unavailable.
"We'll get it for you, my love," he said.
Nearby, a government supporter — a retired policeman who declined to give his name — insisted that the opposition was wasting its time.
"Voting for Olivares is like spitting on the hand that feeds us," he said. "The government gave me a house. There's no way he'll win here. We're with the government until death."
Faiola reported from Miami.