Venezuelans Vote in Elections Seen as Referendum on Maduro

Venezuelans head to the polls today to vote in local elections that the opposition is calling a plebiscite on President Nicolas Maduro’s first eight months in office.

Voters will elect 337 mayors and 2,455 councilors at polling stations that opened at 6 a.m. and close at 6 p.m. local time. People lined up outside voting centers around the country.

The weeks before the election have been marked by increased government intervention in the economy, with Maduro using troops to help enforce price controls as Venezuelans cope with the fastest inflation in the world, blackouts and water cuts. Maduro’s approval rating rose to 50 percent in November, Bank of America said Dec. 6 in a note to clients citing a Datanalisis poll, up from 41 percent in September. The Caracas-based polling agency declined to make the surveys public.

“The data suggests that President Maduro’s move to tighten enforcement of price controls initiated in early November has delivered an important political boost,” Bank of America analyst Francisco Rodriguez wrote. Government candidates lead opposition candidates by 9 percent nationwide, Rodriguez said, citing the poll.

Maduro used troops to enforce price cuts in electronic stores and temporarily seized an Irish-owned packaging company last month, saying companies are overcharging consumers. He has also pledged to lower prices for cars and commercial leases, warning business owners that he is “going all the way” after lawmakers gave him the power to rule by decree for one year.

Inflation, Shortages

Maduro said Nov. 23 his price-cutting measures should slow inflation and asked government statisticians to “go beyond the technicalities and technology” when calculating the consumer price index.

Annual inflation quickened to 54 percent in October, the fastest pace in 16 years. The central bank’s scarcity index, which measures the amount of goods out of stock at any given time, rose to 22.4 percent in the same month as customers searched for milk, antibiotics and tires. Venezuela produces a third of the goods it needs, according to industry association Consecomercio.

As he looks to bolster support, Maduro has appeared on television an average of 90 minutes a day, compared with the late Hugo Chavez’s average of 50 minutes, according to data compiled by Marcelino Bisbal, director of media studies at Venezuela’s Catholic University

Chavez won 55 percent of the vote in his last presidential run in October 2012. Maduro fell short of that mark in the April election, winning 50.6 percent, while opposition candidate Henrique Capriles received 49.1 percent, the narrowest margin in 45 years.

Maduro issued a decree in October making today a “Day of Loyalty and Love to Chavez and the Homeland.”

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