By Andrew Cawthorne
CARACAS (Reuters) - Nationwide local polls this weekend are President Nicolas Maduro's first electoral test since taking power and will show what Venezuelans think of his socialist government's radical response to deepening economic problems.
Sunday's vote for 337 mayors' and 2,523 council posts is theoretically a local affair, with humdrum issues such as pot-holes and street-lights sure to influence voters.
Yet both sides in the polarized South American OPEC member also view their candidates' fortunes as a snapshot of national mood and measure of their relative strength for future battles.
In a close-fought April presidential vote that showed Venezuela split nearly down the middle, Maduro replaced Hugo Chavez after cancer cut short his 14-year rule.
The 51-year-old former bus driver has displayed plenty of his late mentor's fiery anti-capitalist rhetoric and kept firm state controls on the economy, even launching his own policy of aggressive inspections of businesses to force prices down.
Yet Maduro has little of Chavez's personal charisma, rapport with the working-classes, personalized control of the ruling Socialist Party's various factions, or international presence.
And he has seen Venezuela's economic problems worsen.
Decades-old inflation has hit an annual 54 percent, shortages of basics from milk to toilet-paper have spawned queues round the country, economic growth has slowed, blackouts are frequent, and the bolivar has tanked on the black market.
"After the 8th of December, with the constitution in our hands, we're coming for you (Maduro) and your failed, corrupt government," opposition leader Henrique Capriles, 41, vowed as he crisscrossed the nation in the run-up to Sunday's ballot.
Despite such fighting talk, it is not clear exactly how the opposition would seek to undermine Maduro, even with a strong showing at the vote. Activists are divided over how aggressively to confront the government, with street-protests and a petition drive for a recall referendum in 2016 - half-way through the presidential term - among possible tactics.
Maduro has decreed Sunday an official day of "loyalty and love" for Chavez, who is still revered by many Venezuelans especially among the poor, and he has repeatedly accused opponents of planning violence around the ballot.
His continuation of generous, oil-financed welfare programs from the Chavez era, and the former president's dying exhortation to support him, have helped Maduro keep support of "Chavistas."
"Get ready for Sunday's results, the victory of the fatherland is a fait accompli," he told supporters.
Investors are eying the vote for signs Maduro will have the strength to carry out unpopular economic measures such as a currency devaluation to help ease the embarrassing shortages.
Pollsters have been unusually secretive with their numbers, but say the country remains about evenly split, as in April when Maduro beat Capriles by just 1.5 percentage points.
Both men's approval ratings have dropped since that vote.
Economic problems and perceptions of weakness have weighed on Maduro. On the other side, Capriles' challenge to the April vote on fraud allegations petered out, while his media profile has subsided dramatically.
One local pollster, Luis Vicente Leon, said Maduro's ratings decline - to 41 percent in his latest survey - had probably been offset by the recent populist campaign that helped consumers buy cut-rate TVs, car parts and home appliances through aggressive inspections that forced merchants to slash prices.
"The opposition did have a golden opportunity to win by a moderate margin, due to president Maduro's fall in popularity," Leon said in a pre-election analysis. "However, recent events ... could play in his favor."
Given its strength in rural areas, where there are more mayorships up for grabs, the government appears likely to win an overall majority of municipalities while the opposition hopes to retain control of major cities like Caracas and Maracaibo.
Both sides will hope to win the total popular vote, though tallying that may take a few days.
The campaign has been tense. An opposition candidate was shot dead in western Venezuela, though it was not clear if that was politically-motivated or common crime. Capriles said thugs tried to burn one of his campaign buses, and the government this week accused its foes of bringing down the national power-grid.
"It's been an ugly year. I can't wait for Christmas, and frankly I don't care who wins here in Ocumare. Just give me someone who can keep the electricity running so my fish stop rotting!" said fisherman Jose Burgos, 43, whose coastal village has seen service failures and street protests for months.
As in Chavez-era elections, the opposition says there have been gross violations of fairness with state funds and media routinely used to back pro-Maduro candidates.
In return, officials say private businessmen and U.S. right-wing supporters are backing the opposition, aiming to bring down Maduro by any means.
Mayors are a big component of national politics because they receive a considerable portion of money from the central government. They are also among the only politicians who can reach the poor in rural areas such as the sparsely populated jungle-like expanses of southeastern Bolivar state and the isolated plains of Barinas state where Chavez grew up.
(Additional reporting by Diego Ore and Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Brian Ellsworth and Vicki Allen)