Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro greeting supporters during a rally in Caracas on Tuesday.
CARACAS—Venezuela will hold presidential elections before the end of April, the government said Tuesday, as President Nicolás Maduro looks to consolidate power amid a punishing economic crisis and escalating international sanctions against his administration.
Despite worsening food shortages that have the oil-rich country teetering on a humanitarian crisis, Mr. Maduro’s ruling Socialist Party is rushing to hold the vote as soon as possible to take advantage of disarray in the ranks of the political opposition, which has struggled to counter the leftist leader’s increasingly autocratic rule, election observers and Western diplomats say.
The so-called National Constituent Assembly, an all-powerful government body created last year of elements loyal to the president, decreed elections to be held before April 30. An exact date has yet to be declared by the country’s electoral authority, which is also dominated by loyalists of Mr. Maduro. Last month, the president promised to ban some of the largest rival political parties from participating.
Antigovernment protesters blocking a road at the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas on Monday. Their demonstration was later dispersed by security forces firing rubber bullets.
Antigovernment protesters blocking a road at the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas on Monday. Their demonstration was later dispersed by security forces firing rubber bullets. Photo: Roman Camacho/Sopa Images/Zuma Press
Mr. Maduro, who polls show is disliked by three out of four Venezuelans, hasn’t confirmed whether he will seek reelection to a six-year term. That didn’t constrain some of his allies on Tuesday from suggesting the 55-year-old former bus driver and union activist will be their man.
“We’re not going to have any problems with a revolutionary candidacy,” Diosdado Cabello, the ruling party’s second-in-command said. “We already have a candidate: Nicolás Maduro.”
The election announcement came a day after the European Union slapped sanctions on seven Venezuelan officials—including Mr. Cabello and the heads of the military, the Supreme Court and the National Electoral Council—for a host of alleged human-rights abuses. The measure includes a travel ban and asset seizures and follows similar moves from Washington. The U.S. has leveled similar sanctions against a longer list of Venezuelan officials including Mr. Maduro.
The hurried push for elections, which by law could have been called anytime this year, throws a wrench into fraying negotiations in the Dominican Republic between the Venezuelan government and the opposition that are meant to ease the country’s political and economic crisis. The opposition is demanding free and fair elections with the participation of international observers, which the Maduro administration has rejected.
Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray said his country was withdrawing from its role as mediator in the talks because Venezuelan authorities called for elections unilaterally without any agreement between negotiators.
Separately, Mr. Videgaray and leaders of 13 other countries across the Americas, including Brazil and Canada, slammed the Venezuelan government’s move. “This decision makes it impossible to hold democratic, transparent and credible presidential elections, in accordance with international standards,” the countries said in a joint statement.
Mr. Maduro’s allies defied polls and triumphed in state governor elections last year, but fraud allegations surfaced after Smartmatic, the company that sells Venezuela its voting machines, denounced the manipulation of at least 1 million ballots.
Lawmaker Freddy Guevara and other government detractors called for unity among the opposition on Tuesday, urging the selection of a viable candidate to rival Mr. Maduro. “We are facing a historic moment to achieve freedom,” Mr. Guevara said.
But others said there was little hope in changing the government at the ballot box. “The dictatorship doesn’t want free elections,” tweeted Antonio Ledezma, a former Caracas mayor who fled Venezuela for Spain in November after serving more than 1,000 days in detention for leading antigovernment street protests. “Nobody in Venezuela or the world should endorse another Maduro farce.”
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