‘Everybody already knows’ how Venezuela’s presidential race will turn out, voters say

As she waited for power to come back on, so the bank might finally open, Rosa María Antúnez admitted that May 20 would be the first Election Day in her adult life that she wouldn’t cast a ballot.

Antúnez, in her 50s, said that none of the Venezuelan presidential candidates — including the president himself — seemed capable of fixing a country seized by hyperinflation, food shortages, mass emigration and generalized chaos.

Even if there was a worthy leader, Antúnez said she didn’t believe President Nicolás Maduro — who’s running for reelection — would allow another candidate to win.

“This is the first time that I’ve decided not to vote,” she said, as she sat in front of the bank, fanning herself with a stack of papers. “Everybody already knows what the [voting] machines will say.”

For almost two decades, Venezuela’s socialist administration has prided itself on the fevered pace of elections and the habitually strong turnout. The late Hugo Chávez faced 14 elections from the time he took power in 1998 until he died in 2013 — winning all but one.

But Sunday’s presidential election is different.

For starters, the United States, the European Union and many of Venezuela’s neighbors say the system is rigged beyond redemption and they won’t recognize the results.

As Maduro’s government has jailed rivals and barred key political parties from participating, the opposition has responded by calling for a boycott.

And then there are those like Antúnez who have simply given up hope that change can come at the ballot box.

In a recent study by Meganalisis, a Venezuelan polling firm, 70 percent of people said they wouldn’t vote in Sunday’s race and 77 percent said they didn’t trust the National Electoral Council, which tallies the ballots.

If that many people abstain, Meganalisis predicts Maduro will cruise to victory withjust 3 million votes, or 16.2 percent of registered voters. Maduro’s nearest rival, Henri Falcón, a one-time government loyalist turned dissident, is expected to get just 4.5 percent of the vote, and evangelical pastor Javier Bertucci is likely to get 3.2 percent, according to the company.

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A supporter kisses independent presidential candidate Henri Falcon, second left, as he stands next to independent presidential candidate Luis Ratti, right, in Caracas, Venezuela, Tuesday, May 8, 2018. Ratti withdrew from the electoral contest on Tuesday and announced his support for Falcon, who has established himself as President Nicolas Maduro’s main opponent in the presidential elections on May 20. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

Other pollsters, including well respected firms such as Datanalisis and Datincorp give Falcón and Bertucci a lead over Maduro, as they believe opposition voters will ultimately buck the boycott.

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Ruben Chirino Leaño, the vice president of Meganalisis, said the lack of enthusiasm for this election is palpable.

“Many people say they’re not going to vote because they’re tired; they have no faith in the institutions or in elections,” he said. “There’s the feeling that voting is pointless.”

And Maduro has fueled that hopelessness.

A former bus driver, union activist and vice president, Maduro, 55, narrowly came to power in 2013 as the handpicked successor of Chávez, who died that same year due to an undisclosed form of cancer.

In 2015, the opposition struck back, winning congress and vowing to rein in the increasingly authoritarian leader. But the opposition’s strength didn’t last long, as Maduro and his compliant supreme court began stripping the legislature’s powers.

In July 2017, a newly created National Constituent Assembly, also controlled by the ruling party, put the last nail in the congressional coffin, usurping most of its powers.

With that experience still fresh, few voters believe Maduro has any intention of ceding power — regardless of Sunday’s results.

“In short, there will be no real election in Venezuela on May 20th, and the world knows it,” Vice President Mike Pence told the Organization of American States earlier this month. “It will be a fake election, with a fake outcome. Maduro and his acolytes have already ensured that their reign of corruption, crime, narco-trafficking and terror will continue.”

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In this April 18, 2018 photo, residents of La Chinita neighborhood hold a sign with a message that reads in Spanish: “24 days without light, without answers”, during a protest in Maracaibo, Venezuela. Blackouts are nothing new under two decades of socialist rule in Venezuela. But they’ve grown more frequent, and are lasting longer. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

The other leading candidate, Falcón, is viewed with deep suspicion by most of the opposition. Even so, he claims he can still win, if the opposition will drop its suicidal plans to boycott.

And he may have history on his side. A Brookings Institute study of 171 actual and threatened electoral boycotts from 1990 to 2009 “demonstrates conclusively that, other than a few rare exceptions, electoral boycotts generally have disastrous consequences for the boycotting party, rarely result in desired international attention or sanction, and many times further entrench the ruling leader or party.”

While Maduro benefits from opposition demoralization, he also wants to get as many people to the polls as possible to create the image that it’s a competitive race. And yet it’s clear that there’s little enthusiasm on the streets.

Campaign rallies — for all candidates — have been anemic at best. Walls aren’t plastered with competing political posters. Radio stations aren’t inundated with jingles.

Fanny Atencio, a 59-year-old housewife in a Maracaibo suburb, said that in the past she helped get out the vote for Chávez and the United Socialist Party of Venezuela.

But over the last two years, she’s lost 40 pounds because she simply can’t afford to buy enough food in a country where annual inflation is running at more than 13,000 percent.

And she resents the collapse of hospitals, schools and public services. Maracaibo — the country’s second city and once its economic powerhouse — has been slammed by 12-hour-a-day blackouts.

Atencio called Maduro “weak” and blamed him for allowing corruption to blossom among his allies.

“I still don’t know if I’m going to vote or not,” she admitted. “I don’t see any of the candidates offering real solutions.”

In the capital of Caracas, Jesika Volpe, 23, was working as an instructor at the Tubartender Bar Academy, where business was booming. Volpe estimated that 80 percent of her clients are Venezuelans planning to leave the country — as more than a million others have done in recent years — and look for service jobs abroad.

Volpe herself said she was going to skip Sunday’s election. She’s moving to Colombia in hopes of landing a bar-tending job.

“Months ago, when they announced the election, we knew who was going to win,” she said. “So voting isn’t worth our time.”

Cody Weddle contributed to this report from Caracas

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