CARACAS – Venezuela's congressional election on Sunday will almost certainly give President Nicolás Maduro control over the country's last major independent institution, but will do little to improve his image at home and abroad.
Maduro, who already has the loyalty of the courts, the military, prosecutors and other institutions, seeks to load the National Assembly with members of his United Socialist Party of Venezuela. Critics say he's guaranteed that by rigging the system to smother the last remnants of democracy in Venezuela.
An opposition coalition led by U.S.-backed politician Juan Guaidó is boycotting the vote. The European Union, the U.S. and several other nations have already declared the vote a sham.
“The truth cannot be hidden,” Guaidó said in a videotaped message, noting the apparent low voter turnout. “The majority of Venezuela turned its back on the fraud that began months ago.”
Voting results were not available late Sunday several hours after the polls had closed.
Despite Venezuela's political turmoil, voting took place with no apparent problems in Caracas, where polling places were operated by civilian militia members and armed soldiers alongside election workers.
A light flow of voters walked up to ballot boxes at Andres Bello School in downtown Caracas. They checked their names on a wall outside, and inside showed identification cards before registering their votes on touchscreen machines, which printed a paper ballot they dropped into a box.
“I came to vote, and in less than half a second I have voted, quickly,” Caracas resident Rafael Espinoza said. “I’ll tell anyone who wants to do so that they can come down and vote in fractions of a second.”
The Supreme Court this year appointed a new elections commission, including three members who have been sanctioned by the U.S. and Canada, without participation of the opposition-led Congress, as the law requires.
The court also removed the leadership of three opposition parties, appointing new leaders the opposition accuses of conspiring to support Maduro.
Maduro has campaigned for his party's candidates — including his son and wife — promising to finally silence the right-wing opposition, which he accuses of inciting violent protests and inviting U.S. sanctions.
“There are those who plot coups, those who ask for military intervention,” Maduro said on Saturday night in a broadcast on state television, dismissing criticism of the election. “We say: Votes yes -- war no, bullets no.”
The election comes amid uncertainty over the impending change of U.S. administration. Like outgoing President Donald Trump, President-elect Joe Biden has called Maduro a “dictator," though it's unclear what approach he'll take toward Venezuela's crisis.
Guaidó's opposition movement is holding its own referendum over several days immediately after the election. It will ask Venezuelans whether they want to end Maduro's rule and hold new presidential elections.
Polls indicate that neither Maduro nor Guaidó are popular among Venezuelans at a time the nation's economic and political crisis is deepening despite having the world's largest oil reserves.
Karol Teran, a nurse and single mother on her way to work in Caracas, said she didn't vote because it would have no impact. The election is controlled, she said.
“I don’t feel like wasting my time, giving these people the opportunity, so I simply don’t vote,” she said. “We’re tired of all this. I’m tired of all of this. It’s not easy.”
She was still considering whether to participate in the opposition's referendum.
More than 5 million people have fled the country in recent years, the world’s largest migration after that of war-torn Syria. The International Monetary Fund projects a 25% decline this year in Venezuela’s GDP, while hyperinflation diminishes the value of its currency, the bolivar, now worth less than a millionth of a dollar on the free market.
Maduro, the hand-picked successor to the late President Hugo Chávez, won a second term in 2018. But his political adversaries and scores of nations, including the U.S., reject his legitimacy, alleging the vote was rigged and his most popular challengers were banned.
Guaidó, 37, vowed to oust 58-year-old Maduro early last year — basing his claim to the interim presidency on his leadership of the National Assembly, whose term legally ends in early January under the constitution.
The Trump administration and other countries led support of Guaidó and have said they will continue to support him in the absence of what they consider fair elections.
Washington has hit Maduro and his political allies with sanctions, and the U.S. Justice Department has indicted Maduro as a “narcoterrorist,” offering a $15 million reward for his arrest.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that Sunday’s election was fraudulent.
“The results announced by the illegitimate Maduro regime will not reflect the will of the Venezuelan people,” he said on Twitter. “What’s happening today is a fraud and a sham, not an election.”
International bodies like the European Union have refused to send observers to Sunday’s election, saying the conditions for a democratic process don’t exist.
Maduro’s government invited sympathetic international observers, former Presidents Evo Morales of Bolivia and Rafael Correa of Ecuador. Others included a group of men who identified themselves as Turkish lawmakers.
At a polling place in Chacao, an opposition stronghold of Caracas, 68-year-old resident Luisa Fermin shouted at the observers, calling the election “theatrics” that she wouldn’t validate with her vote.
“There are children who don’t go to school because they’re hungry,” Fermin said. “There are mothers who send their children to school barefoot because they don’t have the money to buy shoes.”
Follow Scott Smith on Twitter: @ScottSmithAP
Associated Press writers Fabiola Sánchez and Jorge Rueda contributed to this story.