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Venezuelan opposition returns to polls after years of boycotts

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Today, voters in Venezuela are electing governors and mayors in local elections. The opposition has boycotted recent elections, which they claim have been neither free nor fair. But that's given authoritarian President Nicolas Maduro even more power. So in an about-face, opposition candidates are back on today's ballots. Reporter John Otis has more.

ANDRES SCHLOETER: (Speaking Spanish).

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Andres Schloeter greeted supporters this morning as he cast his ballot in Caracas. He was voting for himself. Schloeter is an opposition candidate for mayor of Sucre, a district of eastern Caracas that's home to nearly a million people.

SCHLOETER: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Speaking to reporters, he said, "everyone needs to get out and vote."

SCHLOETER: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: This is a startling new message. For the past four years, Schloeter and most other opposition candidates sat out elections and often urged Venezuelans not to vote. These boycotts were designed to embarrass President Nicolas Maduro and alert the world to what the opposition claims are fixed elections

SCHLOETER: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: But back at his campaign office, Schloeter says, "unfortunately, the strategy didn't work. And the opposition became much weaker. It was a mistake."

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Indeed, President Maduro's Socialist Party now controls nearly all statehouses and city halls. In 2018, with the main opposition parties watching from the sidelines, Maduro easily won a new six-year term. Another problem is that electoral boycotts made the opposition irrelevant. Polls show that Juan Guaido, the opposition leader recognized by the U.S. as Venezuela's legitimate president, is now nearly as despised as Maduro. So Schloeter and throngs of other opposition politicians are back on the campaign trail.

SCHLOETER: The best way we have to find better electoral conditions is participating. If I stay at home waiting for have better conditions, they will never arrive.

OTIS: The government has permitted two new neutral members to join the pro-Maduro national electoral council that oversees the voting. Observers from the European Union are here monitoring the vote. Even so, the electoral odds remain steeply tilted against the opposition. For starters, the national media are largely controlled by the Maduro government. They cover only ruling party candidates, like Jose Rangel, who's running against Schloeter for mayor of Sucre.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOSE RANGEL: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Rangel's closing campaign speech was broadcast live on state TV, which has totally ignored Schloeter. Campaign donations have dried up amid Venezuela's worst economic meltdown in history. Thus, Schloeter has only been able to pay for a few radio spots and this campaign theme song.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in Spanish).

OTIS: Many Venezuelans fear their government will steal today's elections. Some, like Beiker Maturano (ph), an unemployed 21-year-old, cling to the opposition's previous message not to vote.

BEIKER MATURANO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "I have no faith in Venezuelan politics," he says. But Alexander Soho (ph), a math teacher in Sucre, disagrees.

ALEXANDER SOHO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: After casting his ballot, Soho explains that he earns just $4 a month, only enough to buy a few pounds of cheese. He's desperate for change but points out that, over the years, street protests and coup attempts have all failed.

SOHO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "If there was another way, like if I had weapons, I would fight against the regime," he says. "But the only option I have is to vote."

For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Caracas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.