Caracas: Venezuelans have cast ballots in municipal elections, offering a glimpse of their judgement on the government`s handling of economic troubles as President Nicolas Maduro faced his first electoral test since being elected in April.
Maduro`s supporters roused voters before dawn yesterday with trucks blasting reveille, but turnout seemed to be light, at least in the impoverished Petare neighbourhood and some other districts of the capital.
The vote for mayors and city councils in this deeply polarised country was bound to be competitive. Maduro defeated opposition leader Henrique Capriles by a razor-thin margin in the election held in April to choose Hugo Chavez`s successor following his death from cancer.
Capriles has refused to recognise the results, alleging fraud.
Since then, Venezuela`s economic troubles have deepened, with inflation touching a two-decade high of 54 per cent, and shortages of everything from toilet paper to milk spreading while the black market value of the currency plunges.
Disapproval of Maduro`s rule has been rising, especially within the coalition of ideological leftists and members of the military that he inherited from Chavez.
But the 51-year-old former bus driver has managed to regain momentum by going after groups and businesses he accuses of waging economic war against his socialist government.
Among the most popular measures: the seizure of dozens of retailers and the slashing of prices on plasma TVs, refrigerators and other appliances.
Local pollster Luis Vicente Leon said the offencive helped boost president`s approval rating from 41 per cent in September to just over 50 per cent, about the same level of support he garnered in the April election.
"These elections are going to ratify what the government is doing against this fictitious inflation," janitor Antonio Doria said as he stood in line to vote at a school in Petare.
While the opposition claimed it`s the target of a campaign by Maduro to intimidate media that provide airtime to its events, pro-government candidates were helped by abundant coverage of almost-daily appearances by the president.
It was one year ago to the day that Chavez returned to Caracas from Cuba, where he was undergoing cancer treatment, to anoint Maduro as his eventual successor.
To commemorate that fateful day, Maduro decreed yesterday a national holiday of "loyalty and love" for Chavez, a move the opposition denounced as an electoral ploy.
Calling the national electoral council`s tally "sacred," Maduro called on all candidates to respect the results and said the government had taken precautions to avoid any disruption of voting.