- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 3, 2015

The leftist political juggernaut established by late populist President Hugo Chavez could face the stiffest challenge to its 17-year rule in Venezuela as opposition parties hold a sizable lead in the polls ahead of Sunday’s congressional elections, which could undercut the power base of Chavez protege President Nicolas Maduro.

Sunday’s poll will be the first on the continent since Argentina voters opted for center-right challenger Mauricio Macri in presidential elections last month, a result some saw as the first ebbing of a “pink tide” of leftist governments that have dominated South American over the past decade.

Mr. Maduro, a former bus driver elected to succeed Mr. Chavez in 2013, has seen his popularity plummet in Venezuela to below 25 percent amid food and goods shortages, rising crime and street violence, an inflation rate of nearly 200 percent — the highest in the world — and an economy expected to shrink up to 10 percent this year.

While Mr. Maduro is not on the ballot Sunday, his presidency could be on the line — an opposition majority could seek to recall Mr. Maduro and cut short his term which extends to 2019. Mr. Maduro has vowed to fight the opposition party to the end, even hinting at possible refusal to hand over power should his party lose.

“If the hard-core right-wingers win on December 6, prepare for chaos, violence and protests that overwhelm this country,” the president warned at a campaign rally last weekend,

But it’s also possible government opponents could win the popular vote by a landslide, but fail to gain a supermajority due to a voting system that favors less populated rural districts over opposition-leaning urban areas — exacerbating the deeply polarized politics in the country.


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The coalition dominated by Mr. Maduro’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) has held power since 1998 when Mr. Chavez came to power, ushering in an era of socialist policies at home, and a foreign policy largely defined by hostility to the United States.

The opposition Democratic Unity Party (MUD) leads in the polls and looks poised to win a majority in parliament, but in the past has struggled to unite its two dozen parties to challenge the government. The Maduro government also benefits from its stronghold on the media, its access to public funding and gerrymandered districts that favor the PSUV.

The election may be decided in the barrios and poor rural areas that were long Chavez’s political base, the beneficiaries of generous government subsidies and handouts. The opposition has launched an energetic campaign to woo dissatisfied former Chavez backers as the economy contracts and store shelves go bare.

The U.S. and many human rights groups have also criticized the government’s suppression of dissent, most notably in the 2014 jailing of Leopoldo Lopez, a former mayor of Chacao and a leader of the opposition, on charges of inciting violence and allegedly planning a coup.

A win for the opposition could mean the freeing Mr. Lopez and some 70 political prisoners, greater authority over government spending, and a major say in the selection of justices for the Supreme Court.

Last month Luis Almagro, the secretary-general of the Organization of American States, wrote an 18-page letter to the Venezuela election commission expressing concern for the fairness of the election. Venezuela denied the OAS permission to observe the elections. Also 157 lawmakers from the U.S., Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, and Peru last month sent a letter to Mr. Maduro encouraging him to permit international observers.

“The international community must speak loudly and in a single voice to President Maduro that these attacks immediately end,” said Jared Genser, Mr. Lopez’s international counsel, “and that the forthcoming election be free and fair, and that election monitors from the EU and OAS be admitted to the country.”

Mr. Maduro’s defenders have argued the complaints are a pre-emptive strike in case the polls — as has happened in the past — understate the depth of the government’s political support.

Argentina’s vote may deprive Mr. Maduro of a critical ally — Mr. Macri has criticized the leftist government of outgoing President Cristina Fernandez of being too close to Caracas and turning a blind eye to the Venezuelan government’s human rights and political record.

This article was based in part on wire service reports.

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