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A voter casts her ballot during elections to choose members of the National Assembly in Caracas, Venezuela, Dec. 6, 2020.

Matias Delacroix/The Associated Press

Venezuelans voted on Sunday to choose a new congress in an election the opposition is boycotting and most Western nations call a fraud by President Nicolas Maduro to retake the last state institution not in the hands of the ruling Socialist Party.

The vote is almost certain to return congress to Maduro’s allies despite his government struggling with an economy in ruins, aggressive U.S. sanctions that stifle the OPEC nation’s oil exports, and the migration of some 5 million citizens.

Members of the new congress will have few tools to improve the lives of Venezuelans whose monthly salaries rarely cover the cost of a day’s groceries, nor will their election improve Maduro’s reputation among Western nations for mismanagement and undermining of human rights.

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It could, however, provide legitimacy for Maduro to offer investment deals to the few companies around the world willing to risk running afoul of Washington’s sanctions for access to the world’s largest oil reserves.

Many Venezuelans struggling with basic needs such as electricity, security and food express weariness with the country’s politicians, who they say have done nothing to stem the slide in living conditions.

Fewer people than in past elections were waiting to vote outside Caracas-area polling stations on Sunday morning, Reuters witnesses said.

In the opposition stronghold of eastern Caracas, lines were shorter at voting centres than at service stations, where drivers can spend hours trying to buy fuel that is scarce because of sanctions and the collapse of the oil industry.

The election closes a cycle that began in 2015 when a euphoric opposition celebrated winning congress by a landslide, only to see their legislative powers swept aside by pro-government courts and the creation in 2017 of an all-powerful body known as the National Constituent Assembly.

Opposition leader Juan Guaido, head of the current congress, is calling on Venezuelans to skip the vote and participate in a Dec. 12 consultation that will ask citizens if they reject Sunday’s vote and whether they want a change of government.

“We all know that the result is already made up, it is fixed,” said Jose Guerra, a 52-year-old motorcycle taxi driver in the working-class neighbourhood of Catia in western Caracas.

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Critics have in the past questioned official vote participation figures.

In a 2017 election for the National Constituent Assembly, another vote boycotted by the opposition, the company providing the voting machines said the participation tally was manipulated by at least 1 million votes.

That company, Smartmatic, halted operations in Venezuela.

‘NO MORE HUNGER’

But other Venezuelans opposed to Maduro voted despite the boycott, insisting they want to prevent the Socialist Party from controlling congress and noting the opposition routinely participated in elections stacked in favour of the government.

“We need to go out and vote to change Venezuela so there is no more hunger, so we can all have jobs and something in our pockets, to get rid of this bad government we have,” said Luis Alejandro Almeida, 32, a salesman in Catia.

One woman in eastern Caracas, the opposition stronghold, said she planned to issue an invalid vote to prevent Maduro’s allies from winning by a large margin. Another man, who declined to give his name, said he was voting because he was concerned about possible government reprisals – including being barred from travelling abroad to visit family – for abstaining.

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But opposition leaders this year say government meddling in the process simply went too far.

The pro-government supreme court handed key opposition parties to politicians who were expelled from those parties on suspicion of being in league with Maduro, effectively allowing the government to choose the opposition.

They note the elections council was named without the participation of the opposition-run congress, in violation of the constitution, and that Maduro’s government refused to allow for meaningful electoral observation.

Guaido has been recognized by more than 50 countries including the United States as Venezuela’s legitimate interim president, after most Western nations disavowed Maduro’s 2018 re-election as fraudulent.

Those countries are expected to continue their recognition of Guaido, though the opposition is discussing proposals that could limit the size of his interim government and reduce the number of ambassadors.

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