CARACAS, Venezuela, Venezuela is voting in parliamentary elections on Sunday seen as the first significant challenge to the governing socialist party and the legacy of former President Hugo Chavez.
Voters will elect all 167 members of Venezuela’s unicameral National Assembly. President Nicolás Maduro’s ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) and the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) opposition coalition are both hoping to win at least a simple majority in the legislative body, which would require 84 seats.
For a qualified majority, or supermajority, 111 seats are needed. National Assembly members are elected to five-year terms.
In some areas of the country, alarms and sirens were used at 5 a.m. to remind citizens of their civic duty. Polls opened at 6 a.m. local time and should remain open until 6 p.m.
The election is regarded as a referendum on Maduro, who previously served as Chavez’s vice president and became president after Chavez’s death in 2013. Maduro narrowly survived a constitutionally-required presidential election a month after Chavez died.
About 85 percent of people in Venezuela are dissatisfied with the status of the country, up from 57 percent soon after Chavez died, according to a recent study by Pew Research Center. Only 8 percent of Venezuelans aged 18 to 29 are happy with the country’s condition, compared to 21 percent of Venezuelans aged 50 and older.
The MUD, a coalition of 29 political parties united in opposition to Maduro, are hoping to turn Venezuela’s unhappiness into a parliamentary victory. Maduro’s approval ratings are often below 30 percent and critics blame the PSUV for Venezuela’s economic failures.
“They say they’re winning in the polls. It’s the same story of the last 17 years,” Maduro said at one election rally. “Let them win in the polls, we will win in the streets.”
Inflation is seen as Venezuela’s most significant issue, rated by 92 percent of Venezuelans as a problem. The South American country has the fastest annual inflation rate in the world, estimated between at least 80 percent to far more than 120 percent. Food shortages have also contributed to growing discontent.
“Let’s not forget, Venezuela will always be worth it — always!” Henrique Capriles, a key opposition leader who almost defeated Maduro in 2013’s election wrote on Twitter. “God bless our country.”
The vast majority of Venezuela’s voting process is electronic and is considered trustworthy by electoral monitors, including The Carter Center. Although the PSUV has often been accused of various degrees of electoral fraud in previous elections, there have been no reports significant voter intimidation or fraud yet in this election.
But PSUV supporters have been criticized for breaching electoral laws by handing out propaganda material less than 200 meters away from election booths in at least one location.
The Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) regional body was allowed to monitor the election, but the Organization of American States and the European Union were rejected.
Polls conducted days ahead of the election pointed to a MUD victory, but Venezuela does not allow exit polls to be conducted on election day so the final result must be delivered by the country’s National Electoral Council (CNE).
The CNE said it will only announce results after a clear, irreversible winner has been revealed to electoral authorities.