GUARENAS, Venezuela — Carlos Ocariz was pressing the flesh at a bus stop, trying to persuade potential voters to choose him as their next governor, when a shouted insult from a young man in a passing car pierced the air: “Sellout!”
After a startled pause, Ocariz continued chatting up passengers preparing to board one of the government’s new red buses in Miranda, on his mission to keep Venezuela’s second most populous state under opposition control.
“Can I count on your support?” he asked.
Polls project opposition candidates like Ocariz are likely to win a majority of the 23 governorships up for grabs Sunday. If opponents of President Nicolas Maduro win a decisive victory, it would be the first time since 2000 that the late President Hugo Chavez’s ruling socialist party faces a nation led primarily by opposition governors.
Yet Ocariz’s experience shows that even amid widespread dissatisfaction with Maduro as the country struggles with crippling inflation and shortages of food, medicine and other goods, opposition candidates have had their work cut out for them. And Maduro’s allies are hoping for a strong showing to prove they remain competitive.
Potentially confusing changes made by the government-friendly National Electoral Council could lead some to cast a vote for a candidate no longer in the running or show up at a voting center that was relocated at the last minute. And disenchanted voters may fail to turn out in large numbers, turned off from politics after months of deadly anti-government protests that did not loosen Maduro’s control.
Yraide Albano, a 51-year-old lawyer who suffered a large bruise on her back from a tear gas grenade during the turmoil in the capital, Caracas, said she has felt disappointment and depression but still intends to vote and is trying to persuade her son to do the same.
“He says, ‘Mom, what have we won?'” Albano said. “I tell him: A lot has been won. … We have to continue voting, because it’s the only thing we have.”
Analysts also say that if the opposition does gain a majority of governorships, up from the three it holds currently, a new, all-powerful constitutional assembly that took power in August has the authority to bar the new governors from assuming office or exerting any real influence — if it chooses.
Such a move would not be entirely unprecedented. After the opposition won a majority in congress in 2015, the government-stacked Supreme Court repeatedly nullified legislation passed by the body. More recently the constitutional assembly has declared itself superior to congress and taken over its powers, and Maduro has threatened to replace any new governors who don’t submit to the assembly’s rule.
That could lead to a situation in which “the balance of power won’t be changed” by an opposition victory, political analyst Edgard Gutierrez said.
In the Maduro camp, candidates like Hector Rodriguez, Ocariz’s young and charismatic rival, have been waging their own get-out-the vote efforts and trying to appeal to a broader audience. Many have ditched the polarizing red shirts long associated with the socialist party, and some have avoided lavishing praise on Maduro.
“Let there be no one who does not cast a ballot,” Rodriguez, 35, dressed in a blue shirt and jeans, said at a recent campaign rally.
The race in Miranda, a state of 2.7 million that surrounds the capital, will be watched closely as a bellwether of both how successful the opposition is at mobilizing voters and what degree of support the government maintains.
The state is currently led by Gov. Henrique Capriles, one of the nation’s most recognizable opposition figures, who narrowly lost to Maduro in the 2013 presidential race.
In April authorities barred Capriles from seeking office for 15 years, alleging irregularities including suspicious donations from abroad. But that hasn’t kept him from stumping for the man he hopes will be his successor.
“Miranda will be left in good hands with your next governor, Carlos Ocariz,” Capriles said Wednesday in a farewell address.
Despite polls indicating Ocariz has a strong chance of winning, he, like others in the opposition, has his own ghosts to battle. Ocariz supported Vatican-sponsored talks with the government last year, a move the opposition’s most radical members saw as serving Maduro’s interests by cooling tensions on the streets. Some of the opposition’s core supporters are disappointed at leaders they see as disorganized and weak, vacillating between agitating for Maduro’s removal and opting for dialogue.
In remarks to local channel Televen, Rodriguez accused Capriles and his team of leaving Miranda in a state of “abandonment.”
“They haven’t been on top of security, education, roads, transportation,” he said. “Miranda should change. It should leave behind the time of confrontation and hate.”
Notably missing from the campaigning has been Maduro, whose approval ratings hover around 20 percent and who left the country to visit allies like Russia and Belarus during the run-up to the election.
“It’s very difficult for someone who is so widely rejected to generate votes in favor of candidates,” Gutierrez said.
The election was originally supposed to take place last December, but the National Electoral Council suspended it. No reason was given at the time, though polls last year predicted heavy losses for Maduro’s party. In the months since, various explanations have been provided including a requirement for political parties to “renew” their status.
Days before the rescheduled election, authorities announced they were relocating 203 voting centers, many in opposition strongholds. The electoral council’s chief rector said the move was for security reasons following violence at those sites in July, but opposition leaders and some independent observers believe it was intended to help government-backed underdogs.
The ballot could also be confusing for any voters who know the party but not the exact candidate they intend to pick. Venezuela’s electoral law states that parties have until 10 days before an election to remove the names of candidates who lose in primaries, and in the past they have been allowed to do so. But the National Electoral Council has refused this time, meaning now-ineligible opposition candidates could be listed on Sunday.
“It’s a totally abnormal process,” said Anibal Sanchez, an electoral expert who has been consulting for several opposition candidates.
Nonetheless, Sanchez and others said they’re that confident that sufficient safeguards are in place to ensure an accurate count — unlike the July vote which was marred by allegations of manipulated turnout figures.
Electoral council president Tibisay Lucena said Friday that a number of substitutions have been made and officials would publish a final list.
In Miranda, Ocariz said he understands why many voters may feel apathetic.
“The government and their accomplices don’t want people to vote. They want people to stay in their houses, frustrated and depressed,” he said. “Just as we were in the streets at demonstrations, we have to remain in the fight for votes.”
Associated Press writer Christine Armario in Bogota, Colombia, contributed to this report.
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