Venezuela opposition holds primaries for high-stakes parliament vote

Reuters News
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Posted: May 17, 2015 9:40 AM

By Alexandra Ulmer

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela's opposition coalition held primaries on Sunday for this year's high-stakes parliamentary election, its best shot in over a decade at recouping the National Assembly at one of the ruling Socialist Party's lowest ebbs.

With Venezuela in recession, annual inflation possibly heading to triple digits, basic goods from milk to medicines running short, and crime rates sky-high, government candidates may face a backlash.

But the perpetually fragmented MUD umbrella coalition has struggled to articulate policy proposals and shake an elitist aura, so Sunday's low-profile primaries are largely a show of mobilization against President Nicolas Maduro.

Venezuela has become "a crazy country," said physiotherapist and opposition supporter Roxany Rodriguez, 23, after spending an hour in line and around 8 percent of her monthly wage on a dozen basics at a pharmacy.

But Rodriguez, who only learned of the primaries on Friday, is not inspired by opposition candidates. "They should be offering something new. I'm very disheartened," she said, though she was still going to vote.

In addition to convincing voters like Rodriguez, the coalition must lure disillusioned supporters of the late Hugo Chavez, face a formidable state propaganda machine, and overcome electoral district geography seen helping the socialists.

Fueling opposition suspicion of an unfair playing field, no date has been set for the parliament election, though it will be in the last quarter.

GETTING OUT THE VOTE

Polls show the opposition favorites to win the assembly, though the ruling party has for the last 16 years shown itself adept at winning elections, bolstered by popular welfare programs.

Though institutions are stacked with "Chavistas" and Madurois currently ruling by decree, an opposition-controlled parliament would boost momentum for a referendum next year to recall the leader whose popularity has tumbled since a 2013election, along with the price of oil.

Venezuela depends on oil for 96 percent of its hard currency revenue and while crude prices have rebounded from January lows, the oil price slump has hit the economy hard.

"Voting is our weapon against the crisis," stressed MUD head Jesus Torrealba.

Some opposition supporters complain the coalition itself is being undemocratic by hand-picking many candidates, with only 42to be chosen in the primaries.

Sunday's candidates include veteran politicians, a well-known economist, a PDVSA union boss who accuses the state oil company of corruption, and a former mayor jailed for allegedly stoking violent protests last year.

Despite their seemingly strong prospects, there is precious little excitement among opposition rank-and-file.

"All the opposition does is bicker," said maintenance worker Magaly Gonzalez, 57, who dislikes Maduro but does not plan to participate in the primaries. "Neither the government nor the opposition is doing anything good."

(Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Ros Russell)