Oil-rich Venezuela votes in tense economic crisis

Roland Lloyd Parry
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People wait to cast their vote at a polling station in Caracas, on December 6, 2015

People wait to cast their vote at a polling station in Caracas, on December 6, 2015 (AFP Photo/Federico Parra)

Caracas (AFP) - Venezuelans voted Sunday in tense elections that could see the opposition seize legislative power from the socialist government and risk sparking violence in the oil-rich, cash-poor nation.

Hundreds of people turned out before dawn as voters fed up with soaring prices and food shortages cast their ballots to back the opposition, while others vowed to push on with the "revolution" of the left, in control since 1999.

Electoral commission deputy chief Sandra Oblitas said there was "very high turnout" as polls closed at 2230 GMT, with first results expected from 0230 GMT Monday at the earliest.

With the country of 30 million people suffering soaring inflation and poverty, a broad coalition of opposition parties is vying to gain control of the National Assembly for the first time in 16 years.

They want to force a change of course by anti-US leader Nicolas Maduro, criticized by international authorities for jailing his opponents and barring foreign observers from monitoring the vote.

Queuing to vote at a school in central Caracas, 24-year-old fast-food worker Filros Guzman said he used to vote for the government, but was now fed up with being unable to find toilet paper and enough food in the shops.

"I liked the socialist ideology of an equal society. But now I have changed my mind because of everyday problems," he told AFP.

"You can't vote for the government when you're having difficulty surviving."

Others want the ruling PSUV party to keep control of congress so it will continue approving the social spending programs of Maduro and his late predecessor, "Comandante" Hugo Chavez, father of the "Bolivarian revolution."

"There is no turning back. Revolution and nothing else," said mechanic Gilberto Marcano, 73, as he stood in line to vote in northern Caracas. "I will never do wrong to my comandante."

- 'Yankee imperialism' -

Since the mustachioed former bus driver Maduro was elected after Chavez's death in 2013, the oil prices on which the government relies for most of its hard currency have plunged.

Soaring inflation has slashed families' spending power.

Surveys by Venezuelan pollsters Datanalisis and Venebarometro have indicated the diverse opposition coalition MUD is likely to win a majority of the vote.

But it was unclear how those votes might translate into seats under the system of electoral constituencies, considered to favor the government side.

Maduro's critics accuse him of rigging the voting districts. He has dismissed them as stooges of "Yankee imperialism."

Maduro promised to respect the results. "What is being expressed here" is "sacred," he said, wearing his party's red jacket as he cast his ballot in western Caracas.

"No doubt, the task for the new National Assembly... will be to execute reforms to face the economic crisis," he said, vowing to "attack hoarders, speculators, and those who are hiding products."

Maduro said he would also meet the new legislators to listen to their ideas.

- Fears of violence -

An opposition win could herald a broader shift in Latin America after Argentina's leftist government lost a presidential election last month.

Some analysts said Venezuela's vote would be less decisive -- and potentially volatile, since opposition parties have little in common beyond their disdain for Maduro.

His term as president runs until 2019, unless the opposition wins enough seats to force him out by constitutional means.

With a smaller opposition majority, Maduro could manipulate the result or rule by presidential decree, said analyst Luis Vicente Leon, head of Datanalisis.

"The assembly could seek to impeach the president, but he could try to dissolve the congress," said Leon.

"It would be a very unstable situation."

Foreign officials visiting Caracas said Maduro had agreed to let his main jailed rival, US-trained economist Leopoldo Lopez, vote -- a delicate gesture in tense times.

"Today is a historic day. The change has begun," Lopez's wife Lilian Tintori said as she cast her ballot.

Tintori said that officials will take a ballot box to the Ramo Verde prison, outside Caracas, where Lopez is serving a nearly 14-year sentence.

Some analysts say Venezuela risks political deadlock and leaders have warned of a repeat of anti-government riots that left 43 people dead last year.

"The big problems are the lack of security and the high cost of living," said William Carrasco, 55. "Things could get violent."

Soldiers with rifles guarded polling stations across the country. No incidents were reported.