A five-year campaign by President Nicolás Maduro to wipe out the last democratically elected bastion of opposition power in Venezuela is reaching its peak.
Maduro and his loyalists are poised to win back control of the National Assembly in elections Sunday, adding to the litany of woes facing his chief rival, Juan Guaidó.
U.S.-backed Guaidó and the mainstream opposition parties are boycotting the poll, calling it a "fraud" and arguing that conditions for holding "free and fair" elections do not exist in Venezuela.
Maduro has responded by firing off triumphant tweets, including one jeering at the U.S. for its decision not to recognize the election's outcome. "From the streets of historic and heroic Caracas, we tell imperialism that we don't care what they do and say," he declared.
His son Nicolás Maduro Guerra, a 30-year-old musician, is running for a seat representing the coastal region of La Guaira, north of Caracas. "We are going to win back our National Assembly for the benefit of all Venezuelans!" tweeted Maduro Guerra, often called Nicolasito.
The election comes nearly two years after Guaidó, the assembly's president, stood before a huge and euphoric crowd in the capital, Caracas, and claimed the constitutional right to take over as the nation's interim leader because Maduro's 2018 reelection was rigged.
Guaidó, now 37, swiftly won recognition from the United States and more than 50 other nations, and embarked on a multipronged campaign to oust Maduro, including a failed attempt to trigger a military uprising in April 2019.
At first, Guaidó was cheered on by a multitude of Venezuelans worn down by economic collapse, runaway inflation, chronic food and medical shortages and rampant government corruption.
His sky-high popularity ratings have since faded away, eroded by a loss of public faith in his ability to achieve his goal and fissures within the opposition ranks.
This week his diplomatic envoy to London, Vanessa Neumann, quit, saying there are doubts within the opposition over Guaidó's future, according to the Financial Times.
Despite punishing U.S. sanctions, Maduro has frustrated his opponents by entrenching his position with the help of foreign allies — notably Russia, China, Iran and Cuba.
His ruthless security apparatus has crushed dissent and free speech with violence — including many suspected extrajudicial killings and torture, according to United Nations human rights investigators. The Organization of American States released a report Wednesday saying there is "a reasonable basis" to conclude the Maduro government has committed "crimes against humanity."
These days Venezuelans, struggling with a humanitarian crisis made worse by the coronavirus pandemic appear deeply disillusioned with both their nation's rival leaders.
A mid-November survey by Meganalisis, a Caracas-based pollster, found 81.2% want Maduro and the socialist party to leave power, while 89.1% consider Guaidó "a burden" on the nation. Few expressed interest in Sunday's vote: 74.8% said it would bring no improvements.
The elections are the culmination of a campaign by Maduro to neutralize the National Assembly, which began in 2015 after the opposition won the majority of the seats in a landslide victory.
He used Venezuela's government-controlled Supreme Court to quash congress' decisions and commandeer its powers. In 2017, Maduro moved to make the assembly even more toothless by creating a more powerful legislature, packed with government supporters.
Last January, National Guard forces in riot gear barred Guaidó from entering the National Assembly, after some Maduro allies claimed they had replaced Guaidó as assembly president, although with a vote taken on a show of hands without a quorum. The assembly leader's vain attempt to climb over the railings in a suit and tie made international headlines.
Guaidó is in a still more uncomfortable position now. Maduro's international allies will welcome a newly elected assembly, not least because it can be used to provide legal cover for deals, including oil agreements. Russia's Foreign Ministry described Sunday's elections as "the key to resolving the current controversy in Venezuelan society."
The embattled Guaidó must persuade his waning supporters that his claim to be interim president is intact, and that Venezuela's current National Assembly remains legitimate. Starting Saturday, he and his allies are holding a weeklong referendum seeking to reinforce this.
The stakes are high. "Maduro's objective isn't even to gain legitimacy," Guaidó told the Agence France-Presse this week. It is to "annihilate the democratic alternative in Venezuela."