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Venezuela holds a presidential election Sunday. The country is suffering from food shortages, hyperinflation and a mass exodus of Venezuelans to other countries. All that might signal trouble for the authoritarian president, but it's not clear whether supporters of Venezuela's main opposition candidate will show up to vote. John Otis reports.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).
JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Campaign workers for Henri Falcon fire up the crowd here in the industrial city of Valencia. Falcon is trying to unseat Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela's deeply unpopular president who is seeking another six-year term. Falcon says Maduro's socialist policies have destroyed the economy of this oil-rich nation. By some estimates, the annual inflation rate could hit 13,000 percent this year.
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HENRI FALCON: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: "People work for a month but don't earn enough to buy a carton of eggs," Falcon tells the crowd. "That means hunger and misery. But we are going to get rid of this inept government."
OTIS: Polls show that most Venezuelans want to get rid of Maduro. However, many of them distrust Falcon, a former state governor. That's because Falcon for many years embraced Venezuela's socialist revolution that was ushered in by the late Hugo Chavez in 1999 and continued by Maduro. What's more, Falcon is from a small leftist party. The biggest parties within Venezuela's fractious opposition coalition are boycotting the election. They claim that unfair conditions all but guarantee victory for Maduro.
For example, the opposition's most popular leaders are in jail, in exile or banned from running for president. Critics say the government is using food handouts to blackmail people into voting for Maduro. The U.S., Spain and several other nations already say they will not recognize the result.
NEGAL MORALES: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: Opposition lawmaker Negal Morales claims that by taking part, Falcon is helping to legitimize an electoral farce. But unfair electoral conditions don't always mean victory for autocrats. In 1988, dictator Augusto Pinochet lost a plebiscite, which paved the way for Chile's return to democracy. Two years later, Nicaraguans defied the odds by voting out the Marxist Sandinista government. Falcon is counting on a similar surprise.
FALCON: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: Speaking with NPR on his campaign bus, Falcon says, "it's not time for politicians to go into hiding." He adds, "what sense does it make to tell people not to vote and then provide them with no alternatives?" Francisco Rodriguez, Falcon's chief policy adviser, says it's the boycotters who've been duped.
FRANCISCO RODRIGUEZ: Maduro wants people to abstain. He wants nobody to come out to vote because that's the only election that he can win. And the opposition fell into that trap. And we're not falling into that trap.
OTIS: For his part, Maduro predicts the election will be clean and that he'll win by a landslide.
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PRESIDENT NICOLAS MADURO: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: "We have the support of the people," he declares. "You can't call that an unfair electoral advantage." For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Valencia, Venezuela.
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