CARACAS, Venezuela -- In local races with national implications, candidates for 2,792 municipal positions — including 335 mayoral seats — wrapped up their campaigns Thursday ahead of Sunday’s vote.
In the working class neighborhood of Petare, government supporters were drinking and dancing along with mayoral candidate Tony “El Potro” Álvarez, a former Major League Baseball player who is trying to snatch the municipality of Sucre, part of Greater Caracas, from the hands of the opposition.
The Wednesday night event was more party than political rally as Álvarez gave a shout out to “all the single ladies” and was joined onstage by reggaeton star Don Omar.
José Martinez, a 25-year-old motorcycle-taxi driver who had come out to support the former Pittsburg Pirates outfielder turned pop star, said the vote is a serious issue.
It’s a litmus test for the seven-month-old presidency of Nicolás Maduro and the opposition, he said.
“Sunday’s vote will show who’s stronger now,” he said. “It’s why we have to vote.”
The ruling party and its allies control 262 of the 335 mayoral seats. Analysts are expecting the government to maintain its lead even as it loses slots amid a growing economic crisis that has saddled the nation with the region’s highest inflation and chronic shortages.
The opposition is hoping to win the popular vote and hold key seats in Caracas and Venezuela’s second-largest city, Maracaibo.
“We aspire to win the general vote even if we don’t win the most number of mayors’ seats,” said Vicente Bello, an official with the coalition of opposition parties known as the MUD. “The total number of votes — that’s the number we’re going to watch closely.”
The ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela, or PSUV, holds just one of the five municipalities of Greater Caracas, Libertador. On Thursday, at a downtown rally, National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, perhaps the country’s most powerful politician after Maduro, said his party would fight for it.
“This is the jewel of the crown,” he said, asking the people to reelect Jorge Rodriguez. “If they think the final battle will be here in Libertador, we’re ready for them, any day they choose, at the voting booths and in the street if they want.”
In the oil-rich, opposition stronghold of Maracaibo, Mayor Eveling de Rosales was expected to hold a closing rally late Thursday. She’s defending her seat against Miguel Angel Pérez Pirella, a European-educated political analyst and radio and television personality. He is seen as one of Chavismo’s most articulate and aggressive defenders.
But he’s also seen as a carpetbagger, which has generated tension in the local PSUV party.
As in past elections, observers say this campaign was marred by irregularities as state-run media flooded the airwaves with ruling-party campaigns and Maduro demonized the opposition as corrupt saboteurs.
“This is the most uneven campaign in history,” Vicente Díaz, the only opposition member of the National Electoral Council, said Thursday.
Minister of Communications Delcy Rodríguez fired back on Twitter: “The crybabies of the MUD and [Díaz] are talking about an unfair race, when the only truth is the guaranteed victory of the candidates of the Fatherland!”
On Thursday, the government welcomed 50 international observers who will be joining their local counterparts.
Luís Lander, a director of the Venezuelan Election Observatory voting watchdog, said he was convinced that the voting machines themselves will generate accurate results. But he said “there was a great deal of inequality” between opposition and ruling-party candidates.
Election authorities also appear to be turning a blind eye to violations. Sunday is a prime example. By law, election day is virtually sacrosanct with a ban on all public activities. “Even baseball games can’t be played on election day,” Lander said.
Yet Maduro has asked the country to marked the day by celebrating the legacy of his mentor, late-President Hugo Chávez.
The “Day of Love and Loyalty to Chávez,” as the day is being called, marks the one-year anniversary since El Comandante made his last televised appearance. At that time he informed Venezuelans that he was undergoing an additional round of cancer surgery and asked the country to rally behind Maduro if new elections were called.
Chavez died in March and Maduro narrowly won the presidency in April.
Maduro’s support has slipped more since then as his fledgling administration has been overtaken by the region’s highest inflation, running at 54 percent annually, and sporadic shortages. However, his recent decision to slash retail prices and cap profits is thought to have given him a boost. (Read more about Maduro’s economic policies in Sunday’s Miami Herald.)
Despite the high hopes and heated rhetoric from both sides, this is still a local race, and analysts are expecting abstention of 35 to 45 percent.
The opposition, in particular, needs to mobilize its supporters.
“To create national change we need to win this Sunday,” Henrique Capriles, the governor of Miranda state and the opposition’s standard-bearer, said during a rally in the coastal city of Barcelona this week. We need to “defeat the chaos created by an inefficient government.”
On Thursday, Maduro marked Chávez’s death nine months ago by visiting his tomb.
“The entire country is ready to give you a New Victory,” he wrote on Twitter, “and to keep having a Fatherland.”
Miami Herald Special Correspondent Andrew Rosati reported from Caracas. Miami Herald Andean Bureau Chief Jim Wyss reported from Bogota.