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Amid Opposition Boycott, Venezuela's Ruling Socialists Sweep Mayoral Races


Supporters of Venezuela's president won big in elections last weekend. President Nicolas Maduro has faced years of protests, but in mayoral elections, his favorite candidates won, for the most part, on Sunday. Opposition parties boycotted that vote, saying it was rigged. This is all a prelude to a presidential election, as John Otis reports.


NICOLAS MADURO: (Speaking Spanish).

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: As supporters celebrated in Caracas, President Maduro ticked off the list of cities won by his ruling Socialist Party. He said they had taken more than 300 of the 335 mayoral posts up for grabs, including Caracas. It's now widely expected that Maduro will try to capitalize on this momentum by calling presidential elections early next year. Maduro was first elected in 2013 following the death of Hugo Chavez, who ushered in Venezuela's socialist revolution. Under Maduro, Venezuela has been plagued by hyperinflation and shortages of medicine and food. One survey found that three-quarters of Venezuelans were losing weight. Nonetheless, Maduro is expected to seek another six-year term.


MADURO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: The year 2018 belongs to the people of Chavez, Maduro said. It will be a year of great victories. For the opposition, however, a presidential election in early 2018 could spell trouble. That's because it is split over leadership and whether or not to even take part in elections, says Phil Gunson, who's based in Caracas for the International Crisis Group.

PHIL GUNSON: People are divided. Lots of people, of course, have actually left the country. Lots of the opposition support are simply not here. There's a segment of the opposition that campaigns actively for nonparticipation. These are the hardliners, and they're not going to be easily convinced to vote.

OTIS: Among them is Maria Corina Machado, a one-time presidential hopeful whose party ignored Sunday's vote. She says electoral authorities answer to Maduro and that his government uses access to food and medical supplies to coerce people into voting for the ruling party. Maduro has even threatened to ban the main opposition parties from the presidential election.

MARIA CORINA MACHADO: They decide who are the candidates and who are not, who are the electors and who are not and who win and who doesn't.

OTIS: Meanwhile, another wing of the opposition is holding talks with the Maduro government in the Dominican Republic in an effort to free political prisoners and extract promises for a free and fair presidential election.


DIOSDADO CABELLO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: But in a speech Sunday, Diosdado Cabello, a Maduro ally and top Socialist Party leader, insisted that there would be no changes to the electoral system. Polls show that most Venezuelans want a new president. That's why the opposition still has a chance, says Javier Corales, a Venezuela expert at Amherst College.

JAVIER CORALES: They have to pick a right candidate. They have to be unified. They have to mobilize people. They have to have enough witnesses to go to the voting centers, but I don't think that's unimaginable.

OTIS: Robert Garcia agrees. He lost his bid for mayor of a Caracas suburb in part because so many opposition supporters stayed home on Sunday.

ROBERT GARCIA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: However, if voters are given the chance to remove Maduro, Garcia predicts that turnout will be massive. For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Caracas.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEQUERBOARD'S "KONICHIWA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.