Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro announced Sunday that leading opposition parties will be barred from taking part in next year's presidential vote after they boycotted mayoral polls, local media reported.
That includes the groups of key figures who have led street protests against his rule such as Henrique Capriles, Leopoldo Lopez and others, Maduro told reporters after casting his vote in the municipal polls.
"That's what the National Constituent Assembly set out," he said, referring to the Maduro-allied special powers legislature whose legitimacy has been questioned by many in the international community.
"If they don't want elections, what are they doing? What's the alternative? [Civil] war?" the president asked, visibly angry.
Crisis-weary voters meanwhile appeared to be staying away in droves from mayoral elections that the opposition is already boycotting.
Maduro said his party won more than 300 of Venezuela's 355 mayoral races. And the president insisted that 9.3 million people voted, which he called a record for a municipal vote.
The lack of a serious challenge Sunday to Maduro-aligned candidates led to skepticism in the main cities of Caracas, Maracaibo and San Cristobal.
"Not voting is a mistake. Instead of moving forward, we are going backward the way crabs do," said Carmen Leon, 78, after casting her ballot in Chacao, which has been home to many opposition leaders.
While municipal elections were underway across the country, Maduro clearly had his mind on the 2018 presidential race, in which he plans to seek re-election despite an approval rating of around 30 percent.
In terms of politics, the local election stakes might seem low.
Yet a failure in municipal votes could be seen by many a sign the government had lost the support of the massive lower-income base it relies on to stay in power and in charge of the state-led economy.
These are the last elections before presidential voting scheduled for late next year, in which Maduro says he will seek another term. Some analysts think they will be moved up to the early months of 2018.
Victor Torres, a chauffeur in Maracaibo, said the election will do nothing to resolve what he considers to be the country's biggest woe: hyperinflation, estimated at 2,000 percent this year.
"The other day I went to buy a banana. In the morning it cost 1,900 bolivares and in the afternoon, 3,000. You can't live this way. I am disappointed with politicians," said Torres.
Venezuela, which has the world's largest proven oil reserves, gets 95 percent of its foreign currency from oil. A drop in oil prices has hit the South American country hard, contributing to a massive economic crisis.
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