Venezuela Sees Low Voter Turnout

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- Mayoral elections began at a sluggish pace in Venezuela on Sunday, as voters appeared to abstain from choosing between candidates backed by President Nicolas Maduro and a fractured opposition still bruised by a poor showing in recent gubernatorial races.

The vote for mayors in all of Venezuela's 335 municipalities is the last national election scheduled before next year's presidential race, in which Maduro is expected to seek re-election despite his steep unpopularity.

But various polling places appeared to be sparsely filled as voting started at sunrise, and only a handful of people were seen casting their ballot.

"Let's hope they're late sleepers and this isn't a phenomenon of abstention," said retired librarian Jose Tomas Franco, adding that low turnout at his polling place in the capital of Caracas was "alarming."

Elections are taking place against a backdrop of soaring inflation, shortages of food and medicine, and charges that Maduro's government has undermined Venezuela's democracy by imprisoning dissidents and usurping the powers of the opposition-controlled Congress.

Economic and political crises have caused the socialist president's approval rating to plunge, although the opposition has been largely unable to ride Maduro's unpopularity to gains.

Opposition candidates suffered a crushing defeat in October's gubernatorial elections, winning just five of 23 races amid allegations of official vote-buying and irregularities.

Three of the four biggest opposition parties said they were boycotting Sunday's mayoral races in protest of what they called a rigged electoral system.

But given the disarray, political analysts said they doubted that Maduro's opponents will be able to rally behind a single candidate in next year's presidential election.

"The opposition is condemned to trying to find a solution to its internal problems," said Edgard Gutierrez, coordinator of local pollster Venebarometro. "Either that or simply not compete in 2018."

The last time the opposition refused to compete, in congressional elections in 2005, it strengthened the government's hand for years.

Voting comes at the end of a turbulent year for Venezuela, which holds the world's largest oil reserves but has been battered by a fall in crude prices and low production. The country also saw months of protests that left more than 120 dead earlier this year, and it is now facing economic sanctions by the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump as it seeks to refinance massive international debt.

Raul Contreras, a salesman, said that he thought little would change regardless of Sunday's outcome.

"As Venezuelans, we're very disappointed with our politicians," he said. "Things can only change here after the presidential elections."

(KA)