CARACAS - Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro — who is battling a crippling economic crisis in his oil-rich, cash-poor nation — will seek re-election next year, Vice President Tareck El Aissami said Wednesday.
In 2018, "we will have, God willing, people willing, the re-election of our brother Nicolas Maduro as president of the republic," El Aissami told a meeting of the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela.
Next year's presidential election in the South American country — a member of OPEC — is scheduled for December, but some experts believe it could be brought forward to March.
Venezuela's prolonged crisis has resulted in crippling shortages of food, medicine and industrial inputs, fueling inflation which at 1,000 percent is the world's highest.
Ratings agencies have found the country in partial default on massive international loans, estimated at $150 billion.
Maduro is also under fire internationally for marginalizing the opposition and stifling independent media.
Earlier this year 125 people were killed in several months of violent protests against his rule.
The announcement was criticized by opposition leaders, who blame Maduro for the crisis.
"If Maduro wants the economic crisis resolved in 2018, all he has to do is leave and allow Venezuela to choose an honest and efficient government," opposition leader Henry Ramos Allup wrote on Twitter.
Maduro was elected in 2013 after the death of then-president Hugo Chavez, who had anointed him as successor.
Analysts see the early declaration of intent as a move to dissuade challengers inside the ruling party who may be encouraged to run by the president's low popularity rating of around 20 percent.
"There was an internal race between aspirants and this can be a way of putting down a marker and get ahead," said political analyst Luis Salamanca.
Even if challengers emerge, a Socialist Party primary is unlikely. "It will be resolved internally," said Salamanca.
Maduro's government is due to begin talks with the main opposition coalition on Friday and Saturday in the Dominican Republic to try to put an end to the political crisis.
"The government isn't sitting at the table because of political pressure, but because of economic pressure, because it has a brutal crisis and international sanctions that reduce its leeway," said analyst Luis Vicente Leon.
'Widespread vicious abuses'
El Aissami's announcement coincided with the release of a Human Rights Watch report that denounced "widespread vicious abuses," including torture, against Maduro's opponents.
The abuses include "egregious cases of torture, and the absolute impunity for the attackers," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director at the rights monitoring group.
The report, produced jointly with the Venezuelan rights group Penal Forum, is based on interviews with more than 120 people, including victims and their families.
"These are not isolated abuses or occasional excesses by rogue officers but rather a systematic practice by Venezuelan security forces," Vivanco said, suggesting "government responsibility at the highest levels."
The report documents 88 cases involving at least 314 people between April and September 2017.
"Security force personnel beat detainees severely and tortured them with electric shocks, asphyxiation, sexual assault, and other brutal techniques," the report said.
They also used "disproportionate force and carried out violent abuses" against people in the streets, as well as arbitrarily arresting and prosecuting government opponents, it added.
Maduro's re-election would be a response to the "coup" of the opposition and the "financial persecution and sanctions" of the United States, El Aissami told the Socialist Party members.
"We are ready to achieve a great revolutionary victory," he said to applause.
The vice president pointed out that a second term for Maduro would round off a string of victories for the Socialist party.
In late July, a Constituent Assembly stacked with Maduro supporters was elected to take the place of the opposition-dominated National Assembly.
In regional elections in October, the ruling party won governorships in 18 of the country's 23 states.
El Aissami predicted the ruling party would win "the vast majority" of open mayorships in upcoming municipal elections next month.