CARACAS, VENEZUELA - Venezuelans will go to the polls Sunday in regional elections that are viewed as vital tests for both President Nicolas Maduro and the opposition.
Voters will elect governors for all 23 states, and the opposition Democratic Union Roundtable coalition is calling for large turnouts that some election experts say could propel them to victory in most of the regional elections.
The opposition was unable to sustain anti-Maduro protests in which 125 people were killed between April and July after Maduro opposed the protests and formed a constituent assembly that seized legislative power from the opposition-dominated assembly.
Many opponents of the government doubt the country's elections authorities can ensure accurate vote counts. After the controversial election to install the pro-Maduro constituent assembly, which rewrote the constitution, Smartmatic, the company responsible for the voting machines, said the vote tally had been manipulated by at least 1 million votes.
The situation has the opposition scrambling to encourage voters to go to the polls. At a final campaign event Wednesday in the coastal state of Vargas, opposition candidate Juan Manuel Olivares told the crowed, "Victory will be in your hands. This Sunday, nobody can stay at home without voting."
'Enough of interventionism'
Maduro has urged Venezuelans to vote for ruling-party candidates, which he said would send a message rejecting meddling by the “imperialist” United States as well as other governments. “Enough of interventionism, no to the sanctions,” he said.
The U.S. State Department issued a statement Thursday saying that Venezuelans "deserve to have their voices heard" through the vote.
"We note with great concern that the regime will not permit the presence of independent international electoral observers," it continued. "We call on the Venezuelan government to permit independent domestic observers to fully monitor the election and its tabulation of results.”
The statement also noted Venezuela’s National Electoral Council this week announced it would close or relocate 203 polling stations in areas with strong opposition support.
Venezuelan singer Miguel Ignacio Mendoza, also known as Nacho, has encouraged voters to turn out for Sunday’s balloting in what he hopes will drain power from the ruling Socialist Party. “They have to understand that abstention brings a favorable result to chavismo,” he said, referencing the leftist ideology of late President Hugo Chavez. “And you know what chavismo does."
The country has been plagued by soaring inflation, high crime rates and severe shortages of food, medicine and other basics. At least 4 million of the country’s 30 million people are undernourished, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s annual international report, released this week.
Damning video leaked
Just three days before the elections, Venezuela's chief prosecutor leaked a video supposedly showing an executive with the Odebrecht Organization, a Brazilian conglomerate, saying he agreed to pay $35 million toward Maduro's campaign in exchange for favors involving the conglomerate's construction projects.
Former Venezuela chief prosecutor Luisa Ortega Diaz said on her website the video shows Odebrecht chief Euzenando Prazeres de Azevedo speaking with Brazilian prosecutors.
A man identified as Azevedo said a Maduro aide asked for $50 million for the socialist leader's 2013 campaign. Azevedo agreed to pay $35 million if Odebrecht's projects would receive "priority."
Diaz fled Venezuela in August after being ousted from her position as chief prosecutor by the new and powerful constituent assembly.
VOA Spanish Service correspondent Nicole Kolster contributed to this report.