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article imageVenezuela's Maduro gears up for re-election with party backing

By Maria Isabel SANCHEZ (AFP)     Feb 2, 2018 in Politics

Venezuela's unpopular President Nicolas Maduro got the seal of approval from his ruling party Friday to stand for re-election against a weakened opposition barred from fielding a united rival candidate.

The snap poll is to happen sometime before the end of April, after the Constituent Assembly -- a super-legislature stacked with Maduro loyalists -- announced last week the vote was being brought forward from December.

The Supreme Court, which critics say systematically bows to Maduro, has barred the opposition coalition from fielding a candidate under its banner, and banned several prominent opposition figures from participating.

The opposition says the moves are designed to engineer a second term for Maduro.

The ruling Socialist Party, which Maduro leads and which is holding a congress, on Friday officially voted to make the president its candidate for the election.

"You are officially the candidate of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela," the party's deputy leader, Diosdado Cabello, told Maduro, who was decked out in the party's red color and accompanied by his wife Cilia Flores.

Hundreds of party members yelled "Yes" as the nomination was made.

Cabello said it was "totally natural" that Maduro, 55, be given the nomination, calling him a "comrade of irreproachable revolutionary conduct."

"We are going to win, I have no doubts of that," Cabello said.

- Unabated crisis -

The election will be held against a backdrop of financial and political crisis.

The country, impoverished despite being a major oil producer, is suffering food and medicine shortages brought on by a recent period of low oil prices, declining production, and economic mismanagement. It is in the grips of hyperinflation and is teetering on the brink of outright default.

Venezuela is also increasingly isolated internationally.

The US and EU have imposed sanctions on Maduro and his officials, with Washington calling him a "dictator."

Argentina has said it will not recognize the results of the presidential election, and other major South American nations may follow suit.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is on a tour of South America, during which he is raising Venezuela's crisis with governments in the region.

Maduro is the heir to a Socialist "revolution" in Venezuela started by his late predecessor Hugo Chavez, who died of cancer in 2013.

Tall, mustachioed and lacking Chavez's charisma, Maduro -- a former bus driver -- has bullishly pushed on with policies of nationalization of companies and currency exchange rate controls even as the economic tide turned against Venezuela following a crash in the price of oil in 2014.

Although his popularity has improved slightly in recent months, around 70 percent of Venezuelans still view him negatively, according to the Delphos survey firm.

Many blame him for the scarcity of basic products and for inflation which this year is expected to reach 13,000 percent, according to the International Monetary Fund -- the highest in the world.

Maduro and his government defend themselves by saying the economic crisis is the work of enemy nations -- invariably the United States, sometimes Colombia -- in cahoots with rightwing businessmen seeking to bring him down.

His main pillars of financial support are Russia and China, which have extended billions of dollars in loans to be repaid in oil, and provided diplomatic cover at the UN and in other international organizations.

- Odds favor Maduro -

Maduro did not wait for his official nomination to start campaigning for re-election.

As soon as the early poll was announced, electioneering videos boasting of Maduro achievements were repeated on state television, the president danced salsa at political meetings, and he announced a range of subsidies for pregnant women, the handicapped and retirees.

Maduro stood a chance of victory "if the opposition doesn't make good choices, calibrated ones," said Felix Seijas of the Delphos survey firm. "The odds of Maduro winning the election, even without cheating, exist."

That scenario already cast a pall over talks between the opposition and the government in the Dominican Republic that have so far failed to secure a hoped-for agreement on how to salve the festering domestic crisis. More discussions are scheduled for Monday.

"The election date is at the core of the talks," one of the negotiators from the opposition's United Democratic Roundtable coalition told AFP.

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