Venezuela's opposition is projected in polls to win a majority of governorships in Sunday's election. But voter apathy, a confusing ballot and a last-minute decision to relocate more than 100 voting sites could impact turnout.
As the country spirals further into economic calamity, the election is likely to be scrutinized as an indicator of both how much support President Nicolas Maduro maintains and whether the opposition is still able to mobilize disenchanted supporters.
WHAT’S ON THE BALLOT
Venezuelans will choose governors in all 23 states in an election that was supposed to take place last December. The government-friendly National Electoral Council postponed the vote, after polls projected heavy losses for the ruling socialist party.
There contenders include 23 main candidates each for the socialist party and the opposition. There are also dozens of others who either belong to smaller parties or lost in opposition primaries but remain on the ballot.
WHAT’S AT STAKE
If the opposition wins a majority, it would be the first gubernatorial election since 2000 in which candidates backed by the ruling party coalition do not dominate.
The governor’s offices have become bastions of support for Maduro, and losing them would be a blow to what’s known as “chavismo,” the socialist movement founded by the late President Hugo Chavez.
"Everything is a permanent advertisement for 'chavismo,'" said David Smilde, a Tulane University sociologist who studies Venezuela. Opposition control of most governorships could have “a huge symbolic impact in the rest of the country.”
For Maduro’s allies, wins in key states like Miranda or only a narrow victory by the opposition could show that their party remains competitive despite widespread discontent with his government.
Days before the vote, electoral authorities announced that 203 polling stations, many in opposition strongholds, were being moved.
Tania D’Amelio, a rector with the National Electoral Council, or CNE, said the relocations were due to security reasons. But opposition leaders contend it’s another attempt to create confusion and prevent people from voting.
They have also criticized the council’s refusal to remove the inactive candidates from the ballots. Venezuela’s electoral law states that parties have until 10 days before an election to change candidates, a process that has occurred in previous votes.
The opposition held a primary in September to finalize its slate, but the candidates who did not win are still expected to be on the ballot Sunday.
CNE president Tibisay Lucena said Friday that officials had made a number of candidate substitutions and would soon publish a final list.
COUNTING THE VOTE
The July election of a new constitutional assembly with the power to override all other branches of government was marred when voting software company Smartmatic accused electoral authorities of manipulating turnout figures. However, many believe there are key differences between that vote and Sunday’s that could ensure a reliable count.
An opposition boycott in July meant it had no monitors at voting centers. This time it is expected to have representatives on hand to compare paper printouts with national tallies.
The electoral council plans to use the Smartmatic software it employed during a 2015 election in which the opposition won a congressional majority.
There will be at least one independent national observer, and the international Council of Latin American Electoral Experts will observe election audits.
Whoever takes office will have a full slate of problems to tackle and no easy solutions.
Analysts project inflation, already in the triple digits, could surpass 1,000 percent this year. Cash shortages have Venezuelans forming long lines at banks several times a week to take out measly sums that rarely add up to more than a few dollars. Medicine and food shortages have provoked a public health emergency.
Many worry the crisis will only grow worse. In August the United States announced new sanctions against Venezuela, prohibiting U.S. banks from issuing new credit to the government or state oil company PDVSA.
Governors are at the front line of the crisis and are being asked to help citizens with increasingly stretched budgets.
WHAT COMES NEXT
Even if the opposition wins big, it could face obstacles both in taking office and in governing once there. Smilde and others say the constitutional assembly could take actions to thwart them, like declaring certain political parties illegal.
Pro-Maduro state legislative councils control many aspects of daily governance and could hamstring opposition governors.
Since the disputed July vote, a rising number of foreign leaders have begun calling Venezuela a dictatorship. A transparent vote Sunday without any electoral snafus might call that into question.
"If they have a successful election, and there’s opposition governors taking office, it’s kind of hard to refer to them as a dictatorship," Smilde said.
But if other branches of government obstruct them from actually governing, such accusations would surely resurface.