Venezuela's Maduro seeks to tighten his grip via election

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Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro speaks to supporters during a closing campaign rally for the upcoming National Assembly elections in Caracas, Venezuela, Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020. Venezuelans will vote for a new National Assembly this Sunday, Dec 6. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

CARACAS – With the political opponents of President Nicolás Maduro boycotting Sunday's election for the National Assembly, his socialist party is expected to dominate the vote, giving him control of the last major institution in Venezuela outside his grasp.

The opposition contends the election is rigged and has called its own referendum to counter it. Both votes are playing out in the waning days of the Trump administration, which leaves office with Maduro firmly entrenched despite its efforts to bring about his departure through diplomacy and sanctions.

By taking over the National Assembly, some experts say Maduro’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela will effectively smother the last remnants of democracy in the country.

“Everything indicates that he will achieve what he has always sought, which is to have total, authoritarian, hegemonic control of all the country’s institutions,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue.

He expects U.S. President-elect Joe Biden, who has not hesitated in calling Maduro a “dictator,” to maintain a tough position against the South American leader, and even refine the strategy further, such as taking steps to work more closely with European allies.

Once an oil-producing powerhouse, Venezuela has been embroiled for years in a deepening political and economic crisis. More than 5 million people have fled the country in recent years, the world's largest migration after war-torn Syria. The International Monetary Fund projects a 25% decline this year in Venezuela’s GDP, while hyperinflation diminishes the value of its currency, the bolivar.

Maduro, the hand-picked successor to the late President Hugo Chávez, won a second term in 2018. But Washington and several nations accused him of fixing the outcome by banning his most popular opponents from challenging him.

Opposition leader Juan Guaidó, 37, rose to head the National Assembly in early 2019, declaring presidential powers and vowing to oust the 58-year-old Maduro. The dramatic move sparked massive street demonstrations across Venezuela and won support from dozens of nations.