Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro is seeking re-election in April presidential polls despite a dip in his popularity and opposition accusations that he has wrecked the OPEC member’s economy.
“I’m ready to be a candidate,” he told hundreds of red-shirted supporters at a rally to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the end of Venezuela's last military dictatorship.
Held at the end of April, the ruling Socialist Party hopes to trump a squabbling opposition despite an economic crisis and foreign sanctions.
He said the Socialists would settle on a single consensus candidate at a convention February 4. If selected, he said, he would relish the opportunity to measure up against his opponents. He called on the National Electoral Council to set as near a date as possible for the presidential election.
"They should find the closest date, to get this out of the way so we can begin to make a great revolution. If it was in my hands, the election would be this weekend,” Maduro added.
The 55-year-old former bus driver and union leader, who succeeded Hugo Chavez in 2013, benefits from a formidable political machinery, a compliant national election board, and a core of support from poor Venezuelans reliant on food handouts.
Critics from opposition politicians to Western powers doubt authorities will allow a free and fair vote, given the barring of some opposition figures from running plus abuse of state resources in campaigning.
Some fear outright fraud.
“These are not elections, it’s a military occupation with a fraudulent election board,” said hardline opposition activist Maria Corina Machado, referring to the armed forces’ major role in government and the board’s past pro-Maduro stance.
Announcing the presidential poll would be held by the end of April, the pro-government Constituent Assembly superbody legislature said another election in Venezuela was further evidence of its democratic credentials despite a recent raft of international sanctions.
The United States, Canada and the European Union have all taken measures against Venezuela’s government over rights and corruption allegations, hurting the government’s image and spooking banks from working with Caracas.
Maduro blasted the European Union for imposing “grotesque” sanctions this week on seven senior Venezuelan officials, including a travel ban and an asset freeze.
Should the presidential vote be perceived as fraudulent, further foreign sanctions could come, including from US President Donald Trump who has made opposition to Maduro a prominent feature of his foreign policy.
US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said on Tuesday she did not think it would be a good idea for Maduro to run for re-election. And a 14-member regional group that includes Canada, Mexico and Peru said an election held under the present conditions would lack legitimacy.
“We demand that presidential elections be held with adequate lead time,” the so-called Lima Group said in a joint statement, adding that all political actors and independent international observers must be allowed to take part.
While Venezuelans had been expecting an early election, the announcement came as somewhat of a surprise because talks between the opposition and government have been taking place in the Dominican Republic for weeks — so far without a breakthrough. The opposition has been using those talks to push for guarantees that voting will be free and fair, with the participation of independent foreign monitors.
Foreign ministers from 14 mostly conservative Latin American governments meeting in Chile to discuss Venezuela criticized the announcement of an early election, saying in a harshly worded statement that it was "impossible" for the ballot's outcome to be credible under current conditions.
Mexico, one of several foreign governments mediating the talks in the Dominican Republic, said it was withdrawing its support for the talks to protest the Maduro government's move.
This would be Venezuela's fourth election since a July vote installed the constitutional assembly, which has been condemned internationally as a naked power grab by Maduro.
According to Venezuela's constitution, a new six-year presidential term must begin in January 2019. While an election can be held any time before then, voting typically is held in the final three months of the year to avoid an extended transition.
It is unclear whom the Democratic Unity opposition coalition would attempt to field. The opposition plans to hold primaries to choose a candidate, but the hasty presidential vote may make that tricky.
Its most popular leaders are almost all sidelined from politics - jailed, in exile, or barred from holding office. Months of protests last year failed to dislodge Maduro but resulted in at least 125 deaths.
“The majority of Venezuelans loathe his government and his circle. If our people are allowed to decide, they are out!” one opposition leader, Henrique Capriles, said.
Capriles, a two-time presidential candidate, is prohibited from holding office over allegations of “administrative irregularities”. Former mayor Leopoldo Lopez is under house arrest for leading protests against Maduro, while his young protege Freddy Guevara has taken refuge in the Chilean embassy to avoid charges of plotting against Maduro.
The opposition could succumb to in-fighting about what conditions to accept in the vote.