Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro threatened to further consolidate his power Wednesday, when he asked for congressional elections to be held on April 22 — three years earlier than expected and on the same day he hopes to win another six-year term.
The announcement came just hours after the coalition of opposition parties known as the MUD said it was boycotting the presidential race, which it considers fraudulent.
The opposition won control of congress in 2015 and its members were expected to hold their seats until 2021. While the legislators had been stripped of most of their powers by the National Constituent Assembly — a body firmly in the hands of the ruling party — they were seen as the last bastion of opposition influence in the government.
“We need a new National Assembly that represents the entire country,” Maduro said on Twitter, as he proposed moving up the date for the elections for state and municipal legislative bodies as well. “That way, we can ... work exclusively for the prosperity of the country.”
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The Constituent Assembly and electoral authorities must approve the date, but both are expected to rubber-stamp the decision.
Earlier in the day, the MUD opposition group announced it wouldn’t be fielding a candidate to take on Maduro, saying the vote was “simply a show by the government to demonstrate a legitimacy it doesn’t have amid the agony and suffering of Venezuelans.”
Last month, after talks between the government and the opposition broke down, the National Electoral Council, which is controlled by the ruling party, called for an early election.
The decision to hold the presidential vote in April — and not December, when it’s traditionally held — caught the opposition off guard, without time to hold primaries or unite behind a single candidate.
The United States and several countries in the region have already said they won’t recognize the election results.
In its statement, the MUD said it wants to build a “broad national front” that will press for “real elections” later this year.
The decision didn’t come as much of a surprise because some of the MUD’s most powerful members — including Leopoldo López’s Voluntad Popular party — already had said they wouldn’t participate in a race they see as being rigged.
The election comes as Venezuela is mired in a deep economic, social and political crisis and amid rising hunger.
So far, only one candidate, television evangelist Javier Bertucci, has registered to run against Maduro.
Polls show that the president has approval ratings of between 20 and 30 percent, but absent a consolidated opposition, analysts expect Maduro to easily win another six-year term.
Follow Jim Wyss on Twitter @jimwyss