Caracas: Its leaders have been thrown in jail, banned from politics and remain deeply divided, but Venezuela`s opposition nonetheless looks set to bruise President Nicolas Maduro by winning control of the National Assembly.
Sixteen years into late president Hugo Chavez`s leftist "revolution," opinion polls indicate the opposition is poised to win legislative elections Sunday for the first time since the firebrand leader came to power.
That is a sign of widespread frustration with the economic mess besieging oil-dependent Venezuela, where spiralling inflation, empty supermarket shelves and long lines have become the norm under Maduro, Chavez`s embattled successor.
But it is also a sign that the government`s crackdown on the opposition has backfired, said political analysts.
Seven opposition politicians have been banned from politics over allegations of corruption or conspiring to overthrow the government, including popular former lawmaker and presidential candidate Maria Corina Machado.
Another 75 are being held as "political prisoners," the opposition says, including protest leader Leopoldo Lopez, who was sentenced to nearly 14 years in September in a case that drew condemnation from human rights groups and the United Nations.
"The government has been badly damaged by its own aggressive strategy," said political scientist Elsa Cardozo of Simon Bolivar University.
The opposition coalition, the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), heads into the elections leading the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) and its allies by as much as 35 percentage points, according to one poll.
Founded in 2009 with the goal of defeating Chavez, MUD is a motley group of some 30 parties from across the political spectrum, with no real leader.
The coalition, which has always struggled with its own internal divisions, has gotten a counterintuitive boost from the authorities` harsh treatment, especially Lopez`s jailing, said Luis Vicente Leon, head of polling firm Datanalisis.
"The government made a mistake (in the Lopez case). It made him into a martyr, which motivates people to vote," Leon told AFP.Lopez, a 44-year-old economist with a master`s degree from Harvard, was the most visible leader of massive protests that shook Venezuela last year and left 43 people dead.