May 18, 2015 / 3:58 AM / in 3 years

Venezuela opposition holds primaries for high-stakes parliament vote

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela’s opposition coalition held primaries on Sunday for this year’s high-stakes parliamentary election, its best shot in over a decade at recouping the National Assembly at one of the ruling Socialist Party’s lowest ebbs.

People enter to a polling station to cast their vote during opposition coalition primaries for parliamentary election in Caracas May 17, 2015. REUTERS/Marco Bello

With Venezuela in recession, annual inflation possibly heading to triple digits, basic goods from milk to medicines running short and crime rates sky-high, government candidates may face a backlash.

But the perpetually fragmented MUD umbrella coalition has struggled to articulate policy proposals and shake an elitist aura, so Sunday’s low-profile primaries were largely a show of mobilization against President Nicolas Maduro.

The 42 winning candidates include veteran politicians, a respected economist and a former mayor jailed for allegedly stoking violent protests last year.

“Today change begins!” MUD head Jesus Torrealba thundered to cheers on Sunday night.

The opposition must now lure disillusioned supporters of the late Hugo Chavez, face a formidable state propaganda machine, overcome electoral district geography seen helping the socialists, and excite its base.

Venezuela has become “a crazy country,” said Roxany Rodriguez, a physiotherapist and opposition supporter, after spending an hour in line and around 8 percent of her monthly wage on a dozen basics at a pharmacy.

But Rodriguez, who only learned of the primaries on Friday, is not inspired by opposition candidates. “They should be offering something new. I‘m very disheartened,” she said, though she still preferred to vote.

FAVORITES

Polls show the opposition favorites to win the assembly, though the ruling party has for the last 16 years shown itself adept at winning elections.

While institutions are stacked with “Chavistas” and Maduro is currently ruling by decree, an opposition-controlled parliament would boost momentum for a referendum next year to recall the leader whose popularity has tumbled.

Fueling opposition suspicion of an unfair playing field, no date has been set for the parliament election, though it will be in the last quarter.

“The opposition’s challenge now is to guarantee unity,” Luis Vicente Leon, head of pollster Datanalisis, said after results were announced. “Divisions, as small as they may be, would risk gangrene.”

Maduro, lacking Chavez’s magnetism, is himself wrestling with divisions in the “Chavista” bloc.

A dissenting Socialist faction that berates his government for corruption and bureaucracy has broken ranks and sought to become its own party.

That request was denied, Marea Socialista leader Gonzalo Gomez told Reuters on Sunday, adding his group would fight the decision.

Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Ros Russell

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