CARACAS, (Reuters) – Polarized Venezuela heads to the polls this weekend with a punishing recession forecast to rock the ruling Socialists and propel an optimistic opposition to its first legislative majority in 16 years.
Founded by the late Hugo Chavez, the Socialists’ long mighty “Chavismo” movement is facing public ire over shortages of goods from medicines to milk and the world’s worst inflation under his successor, President Nicolas Maduro.
Defeat for “Chavismo” at Sunday’s vote would give the opposition a major platform to combat Maduro and deal a further blow to Latin America’s left after Argentina swung to the right in last month’s presidential election won by Mauricio Macri.
If the opposition coalition wins a majority in Venezuela’s 167-seat National Assembly, it hopes to reduce the Socialists’ hegemony and tackle what it deems mismanagement, corruption and authoritarianism during their nearly 17-year rule.
That could bring confrontation given the combative president’s strong executive powers and institutions from the Supreme Court and the central bank that are pro-government.
After a heated election run-up marked by insults and gunshots, Maduro was winding up his campaign on Thursday with a street rally of red-shirted supporters while the opposition was holding a concert in affluent east Caracas.
Maduro has warned Venezuelans against betraying Chavez by voting for what he paints as a U.S.-backed elitist clique that would abolish welfare programs.
“Imagine if they dominated the National Assembly. I wouldn’t allow it, I swear, I wouldn’t let my hands be tied by anyone. I’d take to the street with the people,” he roared this week.
The former bus driver and union leader elected in 2013 after Chavez died of cancer has been on state TV every day in rallies across Venezuela’s plains, Andes, Caribbean coast and cities.
But in nearly every corner of the OPEC member country, anger is mounting, especially among the poor, the leftist government’s traditional bedrock of support, now worst hit by long queues for food and inflation that annihilates incomes.