By Vivian Sequera and Alexandra Ulmer
CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro looked sure to stand for re-election in a presidential vote due by the end of April where the ruling Socialists hope to trump a squabbling opposition despite an economic crisis and foreign sanctions.
The unpopular leader, whom foes decry as a dictator who has wrecked the OPEC member’s economy, said he would run if the ruling Socialist Party asked him, even as Venezuelans reel from empty shelves and the world’s fastest inflation.
“I’m ready to be a candidate,” he told reporters during a rally of cheering red-shirted supporters broadcast on state TV.
The 55-year-old former bus driver and union leader, who succeeded Hugo Chavez in 2013, benefits from a formidable political machinery, a compliant national election board, and a hard core of support from poor Venezuelans reliant on state food handouts.
Critics from opposition politicians to Western powers doubt authorities will allow a free and fair vote, given the barring of some opposition figures from running plus abuse of state resources in campaigning.
Some fear outright fraud.
“These are not elections, it’s a military occupation with a fraudulent election board,” said hardline opposition activist Maria Corina Machado, referring to the armed forces’ major role in government and the board’s past pro-Maduro stance.
Announcing the presidential poll would be held by the end of April, the pro-government Constituent Assembly superbody legislature said another election in Venezuela was further evidence of its democratic credentials despite a recent raft of international sanctions.
The United States, Canada, and the European Union have all taken measures against Venezuela’s government over rights and corruption allegations, hurting the government’s image and spooking banks from working with Caracas.
Maduro blasted the European Union for imposing “grotesque” sanctions this week on seven senior Venezuelan officials, including a travel ban and an asset freeze, and took aim at Spain’s conservative prime minister.
“Mariano Rajoy, get on all fours, my friend, because the people are going to slap you,” Maduro said, flanked by cabinet members and wife Cilia Flores, whom he refers to as the “First Combatant.”
Should the presidential vote be perceived as fraudulent, further foreign sanctions could come, including from U.S. President Donald Trump who has made opposition to Maduro a prominent feature of his foreign policy.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said on Tuesday she did not think it would be a good idea for Maduro to run for re-election. And a 14-member regional group that includes Canada, Mexico and Peru said an election held under the present conditions would lack legitimacy.
“We demand that presidential elections be held with adequate lead time,” the so-called Lima Group said in a joint statement, adding that all political actors and independent international observers must be allowed to take part.
WHO WILL TAKE ON MADURO?
It is unclear whom the Democratic Unity opposition coalition would attempt to field. The opposition plans to hold primaries to choose a candidate, but the hasty presidential vote may make that tricky.
Its most popular leaders are almost all sidelined from politics – jailed, in exile, or barred from holding office. Months of protests last year failed to dislodge Maduro but resulted in at least 125 deaths.
“The majority of Venezuelans loathe his government and his circle. If our people are allowed to decide, they are out!” one opposition leader, Henrique Capriles, said.
Capriles, a two-time presidential candidate, is prohibited from holding office over allegations of “administrative irregularities”. Former mayor Leopoldo Lopez is under house arrest for leading protests against Maduro, while his young protege Freddy Guevara has taken refuge in the Chilean embassy to avoid charges of plotting against Maduro.
The election announcement could also derail talks between the government and the opposition in the Dominican Republic, although chances of a breakthrough were always slim.
The opposition could succumb to in-fighting about what conditions to accept in the vote.
During the governors’ election of last October, opposition candidates for the first time gave convincing evidence that elections authorities had altered results in one state, though Maduro scoffed at that and said the system was the cleanest in the world.
With cynicism toward all politicians running high among Venezuelans, many are clamoring for a nontraditional, outside candidate. The name of Lorenzo Mendoza, billionaire head of private food company Polar, is on many people’s lips, but he has given no indication of wanting to stand.
“The majority want an outsider,” said Dimitris Pantoulas, a Caracas-based political consultant.
(Reporting by Vivian Sequera and Alexandra Ulmer; additional reporting by Andreina Aponte, Corina Pons, Brian Ellsworth and Arshad Mohammed in Washington and Felipe Iturrieta in Santiago; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer and Andrew Cawthorne; editing by Matthew Lewis and Grant McCool)