By Daniel Wallis and Andrew Cawthorne
CARACAS Dec 8 Venezuelans voted in municipal
elections on Sunday that are the biggest political test yet for
President Nicolas Maduro as he tries to halt an economic slide
and preserve the socialist legacy of his late mentor, Hugo
The outcome of ballots to choose 337 mayors and around 2,500
councillors will be seen as a sign of Maduro's strength, nine
months after Chavez died from cancer and he narrowly beat
opposition leader Henrique Capriles to win the presidency.
"All patriots must vote so we can give a victory to our
commander (Chavez) and guarantee peace and future for the
fatherland," Maduro, 51, said on Twitter in exhortation to
In Caracas shantytowns and elsewhere, pro-Maduro activists
woke up supporters before dawn with bugle calls and trumpets in
an election mobilization tactic begun under Chavez.
Opponents portray Maduro as a buffoonish autocrat with none
of his predecessor's political savvy, and say his continuation
of statist economic policies - including a new crackdown on
businesses for alleged price-gouging - are disastrous.
"It's important to vote though I don't think it will bring
the changes I want," said graphic designer Antonella Gutierrez,
45, on her way to vote at a primary school in a pro-opposition
upscale suburb of Caracas nestled under the Avila mountain.
"I want changes from the presidency down. This government is
tearing the country into bits, destroying my Venezuela."
Unlike the presidential votes that Maduro won in April and
Chavez last year, morning queues appeared thin at poll stations.
A healthy turnout of 60 percent or more was forecast however.
Though local issues such as roads, street lights and utility
services were bound to affect individual mayoral races, both
sides in the polarized OPEC nation also see the overall results
as a crucial show of their standing at national level.
The ruling Socialist Party was likely to win a majority of
municipalities thanks to its popularity in rural areas, where
most of the mayorships are located, while the opposition wants
to keep control of big cities such as Caracas and Maracaibo.
Both sides were desperate to win the total popular vote,
though most pollsters predict that would again be broadly split
down the middle, like the April presidential poll.
Investors are watching the ballot for indications as to
whether Maduro will have the strength to push through unpopular
economic measures, such as a currency devaluation that would
help government finances but also spur inflation.
Should the opposition perform well, its leader Capriles has
vowed to "go for Maduro," but not specified how.
The opposition's next opportunities to gain political ground
are 2015 parliamentary elections and a signature drive for a
recall referendum on Maduro in 2016. But some anti-government
activists are pressing for more, like street protests.
Since taking office, Maduro, a burly 51-year-old former bus
driver, has maintained core support among "Chavistas" by keeping
his popular welfare programs and repeating his rhetoric and
politics. But Venezuela's economic problems have worsened.
Inflation has hit 54 percent, scarcities of basic products
from flour to milk have spawned queues and annoyance around the
country, power cuts are frequent, and the local bolivar currency
has tanked against the dollar on the black market.
The economic problems had been weighing on Maduro's ratings,
but his recent aggressive drive to inspect shops and businesses
suspected of price-gouging - and arrests of several dozen
retailers - has proved popular among core supporters.
One poll by local company Datanalisis, leaked by Wall Street
analysts, showed Maduro had received a 10-point bounce from last
month to 50.4 percent popularity just before Sunday's vote.
Maduro says U.S.-backed and opposition-linked businessmen
are behind an "economic war" intended to topple him.
In moves echoing Chavez's many clashes with the private
sector, he has ordered companies to slash prices - delighting
millions of consumers - and even sent troops to occupy a large
electronics retailer he accused of price-gouging.
"He has made our Christmas a happy one. The government
definitely has my vote on Sunday. Long live Maduro!" said Juan
Alvarez, 31, a plumber queueing for newly cut-price shoes for
his children at a Caracas sports shop this week.
One music video on state TV sings Maduro's praises in a play
on the name Saint Nicholas, the model for Santa Claus: "People
of peace, lower your prices! Nicolas has arrived!"
Opponents, and some private economists, say the measures
smack of short-term populism that do nothing to fix what they
consider the roots of Venezuela's economic mess: persecution of
the private sector, inefficiency and corruption in state
businesses, an over-valued bolivar, and excessive controls.
"It is clear that, essentially, the idea is to stay in
power, not the development of the country or people's welfare,"
said Asdrubal Oliveros of local consultancy Ecoanalitica, which
is often critical of the government.
As well as symbolizing the state of national politics,
Sunday's election was also significant because mayors receive a
sizeable portion of the country's oil revenue.
Spicing up the elections, the government has included
several local celebrities on its mayoral roster, such as former
baseball player-turned-rap singer Antonio "El Potro" (The Colt)
Alvarez who was fighting for a Caracas district.
Results were expected to start coming in on Sunday evening.