Venezuelan opposition leaders said Thursday the country is heading toward Cuban-style elections, with no real challengers to the ruling party, thanks to burdensome new rules governing how parties renew their registration.
The accusation comes as the opposition stands to make major gains in upcoming regional elections, with Venezuela's economy imploding and President Nicolas Maduro's popularity plunging.
The new rules, announced this week, set up a challenging series of hoops for parties to jump through in order to participate in this year's vote, which has not yet been scheduled.
Maduro's United Socialist Party is exempt, as is the main opposition coalition, the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), since both won more than one percent of the vote in the past two elections.
But the catch, for the MUD, is that it is not in fact a single party: It is a coalition of some 30 parties, each of which will have to go through the renewal process.
Under the new rules, that means gathering signatures from 0.5 percent of voters in at least half the country's 24 states, in just 14 hours -- roughly half a million people, in a country with some 20 million registered voters.
Signatories will have to prove their identity with fingerprint scans -- with only 390 scanners set up for the process.
That, say opposition leaders, is an all but impossible set of constraints.
- A vote but 'no choice' -
"They're trying to fraudulently set up elections with no challengers," the MUD said.
"They want to turn the Venezuelan electoral system into a copy of the Cuban or Nicaraguan electoral system... in which people can vote, but not choose."
Even some parties allied with the Maduro camp protested.
"This eliminates parties with a bureaucratic sweep of the pen," said Juan Barreto, whose Redes party is allied with Maduro's but has been critical of his government.
Eighteen years after his late mentor Hugo Chavez brought the Venezuelan left to power, Maduro retains a firm grip on the National Electoral Council, the courts and the army.
But he is increasingly unpopular as Venezuela struggles through an economic nightmare of food shortages and hyperinflation brought on by low prices for its key export, oil.
Recent polls indicate 80 percent of Venezuelans disapprove of him.
That is why Maduro needs to "take the MUD out of the game," political scientist Luis Salamanca told AFP.
"At this point, (the Maduro camp) can't win an election of any kind."