Venezuela's congressional election on Sunday will almost certainly give President Nicolás Maduro control over the country's last major independent institution, but will do little to improve his image at home and abroad.
Maduro, who already has the loyalty of the courts, the military, prosecutors and other institutions, seeks to load the National Assembly with members of his United Socialist Party of Venezuela, and critics say he's guaranteed that by rigging the system to smother the last remnants of democracy in Venezuela.
An opposition coalition led by U.S.-backed politician Juan Guaidó is boycotting the vote. The European Union, the U.S. and several other nations, have already declared the vote a sham.
“How's Maduro's fraud going?” Guaidó tweeted, showing pictures of an empty polling place. “Failed."
“I came to vote, and in less than half a second I have voted, quickly,” Caracas resident Rafael Espinoza said. “I’ll tell anyone who wants to do so that they can come down and vote in fractions of a second.”
The Supreme Court this year appointed a new elections commission, including three members who have been sanctioned by the U.S. and Canada, without participation of the opposition-led Congress, as the law requires.
The court also removed the leadership of three opposition parties, appointing new leaders the opposition accuses of conspiring to support Maduro.
Maduro has campaigned for his party's candidates — including his son and wife — promising to finally silence the right-wing opposition, which he accuses of inciting violent protests and inviting U.S. sanctions.
“There are those who plot coups, those who ask for military intervention,” Maduro said on Saturday night in a broadcast on state television, dismissing criticism of the election. “We say: Votes yes — war no, bullets no.”
Guaidó's opposition movement is holding a referendum over several days after the election. It will ask Venezuelans whether they want to end Maduro's rule and hold new presidential elections.
It's unclear whether either vote will draw masses of people as polls indicate that neither Maduro nor Guaidó are popular among Venezuelans at a time the nation's economic and political crisis is deepening despite having the world's largest oil reserves.
More than 5 million people have fled the country in recent years, the world’s largest migration after that of 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, now worth less than a millionth of a dollar on the free market.
Maduro, the hand-picked successor to the late President Hugo Chávez, won a second term in 2018. But his political adversaries and several nations, including the U.S., reject his legitimacy, alleging the vote was rigged and his most popular challengers were banned.
Guaidó, 37, vowed to oust 58-year-old Maduro early last year — basing his claim to the interim presidency on his leadership of the National Assembly, whose term legally ends in early January under the constitution.
The Trump administration led scores of nations in support of Guaidó and they have said they will continue to support him in the absence of what they consider fair elections.
Washington has hit Maduro and his political allies with sanctions, and the U.S. Justice Department has indicted Maduro as a “narcoterrorist,” offering a $15 million reward for his arrest.
On Saturday, the White House National Security Council said the election scheduled for Sunday was fraudulent.
“This election only serves to keep Maduro in power and does nothing to build a better future for the people of Venezuela," the council tweeted. “The U.S. will continue its unwavering demands for freedom, basic human rights, the rule of law, and truly fair elections in Venezuela."
International bodies like the European Union have refused to send observers to Sunday’s election, saying the conditions for a democratic process don’t exist.
Karol Teran, a nurse and single mother on her way to work in Caracas, said she decided not to vote because it would have no impact. The election is controlled, she said.
“I don’t feel like wasting my time, giving these people the opportunity, so I simply don’t vote,” she said. “We’re tired of all this. I’m tired of all of this. It’s not easy.”