Venezuela opposition ponders whether to fight Maduro in vote

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela’s opposition was to huddle on Thursday and debate whether to participate in a controversial April presidential vote despite the barring of its best two candidates and an electoral board favoring President Nicolas Maduro.

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro talks to the media before an event with supporters of Somos Venezuela (We are Venezuela) movement in Caracas, Venezuela February 7, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello

Electoral authorities on Wednesday set the election for April 22 after mediation talks in the Dominican Republic between the unpopular leftist government and an opposition coalition collapsed, leaving Maduro the favorite for re-election.

The 55-year old former bus driver and union leader is running despite his widespread unpopularity and a devastating economic crisis that has spawned malnutrition, disease, hyperinflation and emigration.

After surviving months of massive street protests last year, Maduro has consolidated his power by creating a new legislative superbody and sidelining opposition parties.

His foes are split about whether they should run against him.

Some say participating in what they consider a sham election will merely lend legitimacy to an authoritarian government. The most popular figureheads are both unable to run; Henrique Capriles is barred from office while Leopoldo Lopez is under house arrest. Several countries, including major Latin American countries, have already said the vote will lack legitimacy.

But other opposition activists say they have to keep up pressure by voting, and an upset could occur given public disgust at growing national penury.

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Opposition leader Julio Borges said the coalition would meet Thursday afternoon. “We’re talking... of hours until we respond to the nation,” he told local radio.

There is a risk the perennially squabbling opposition will split over strategy, with some boycotting the vote and others backing several different candidates.

Maduro, meanwhile, has been reveling in near-daily campaign speeches. During hours-long events broadcast on state television, cheering red-shirted supporters sing his campaign jingle “Everyone with Maduro” while he dances salsa with first lady Cilia Flores, whom he calls the “First Combatant.”

Maduro has also been distancing himself from his charismatic predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez.

He and his allies have exited the Chavez-era party known as Venezuela’s United Socialist Party (PSUV) to create a new movement called We Are Venezuela. Chavez, who died of cancer five years ago, is also barely featured in Maduro’s campaign, unlike in the 2013 election where Maduro pitched himself as the “son” of the former president.

Opposition activists say Maduro’s focus on campaign aesthetics show he is an uncaring tyrant vying to amass power even if it risks pushing Venezuela into a full-blown humanitarian crisis. Maduro, meanwhile, says opposition leaders are feckless right-wing elites who get their orders from Washington.

Reporting by Vivian Sequera; Additional reporting by Andreina Aponte; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Jonathan Oatis