With Venezuela in economic free-fall, massively unpopular President Nicolas Maduro on Wednesday launched his sudden campaign for a new term in a vote to be held by late April.
The 55-year-old, who was Hugo Chavez’s handpicked successor, will be the ruling socialist party’s sole candidate.
Mr Maduro, a former union activist and bus driver assumed power in April 2013 after longtime president Hugo Chavez died in office from cancer.
With Venezuelans spending hours in line to buy scarce food and items like toothpaste and toilet paper — Maduro’s unpopularity rating has risen to 70 percent as his oil-rich country slipped into severe economic distress compounded by corruption and the fall in the price of crude.
Yet the divided opposition, drawn into a coalition called the Democratic Union Roundtable (MUD), has been unable to capitalize politically.
It has slipped to defeat in regional and municipal elections it has blamed on massive government fraud, but which have seen the Socialists tighten their grip on government.
The ruling party appears to have seized the relative momentum to bring forward a presidential vote which was to have been held by year’s end.
– Maduro exultant –
State television on Wednesday was humming with coverage exalting his leadership. But so far no election date has been announced.
“It’s completely logical for the government to bring forward the vote, first because it faces a very complicated year economically, and second it’s trying to catch the opposition at a time of much disruption,” said analyst Benigno Alarcon.
The United States on Wednesday denounced Venezuela’s plan to hold a presidential election before the end of April, arguing that such a vote would not be free and fair.
The vote was called by Venezuela’s Constituent Assembly, a body Washington and much of the international community alleges was set up to bypass democratic controls and entrench President Nicolas Maduro’s power.
The State Department urged Venezuela to set up a “transparent electoral process open to credible international observation” and to fulfil its international and inter-American democratic commitments.
On Monday, the EU blacklisted seven senior Venezuelan officials over human rights violations, including the interior minister, the intelligence chief, the attorney general, the head of the CNE and Cabello himself.
The US also announced a series of sanctions against Venezuela linked to Maduro’s crackdown on opponents.
Cabello said the National Electoral Council (CNE) would set an exact date for the elections, which he said would be “before April 30.”
And he stressed that the decision to bring forward the elections was a response to the United States and the European Union for imposing sanctions on Venezuela, which he said had the sole objective of “seeking a change of government.”
“If the world wants to apply sanctions, we will apply elections,” Cabello told the Assembly, created last year to usurp the power of the opposition-dominated legislature.
“Imperial powers have unleashed a systematic and hateful campaign against Venezuela,” he said.