Apathy high as Venezuela holds weekend local elections

In this Dec. 5, 2018 photo, people are familiarized with the ballot for local elections during a campaign event by Fernando Melena, who is running to

In this Dec. 5, 2018 photo, people are familiarized with the ballot for local elections during a campaign event by Fernando Melena, who is running to

In this Dec. 5, 2018 photo, El Hatillo's Mayor Elias Sayegh, right, speaks with voters as he campaigns for other candidates inside a bakery in the mun

In this Dec. 5, 2018 photo, El Hatillo's Mayor Elias Sayegh, right, speaks with voters as he campaigns for other candidates inside a bakery in the mun

In this Dec. 5, 2018 photo, Fernando Melena, center, who is running to retain his council seat in the eastern district of El Hatillo, speaks with vote

In this Dec. 5, 2018 photo, Fernando Melena, center, who is running to retain his council seat in the eastern district of El Hatillo, speaks with vote

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — A handful of anti-government candidates in this weekend's elections for local council seats in Venezuela did their best to campaign on the street one evening under the flash of passing headlights in an eastern neighborhood of the capital.

Nobody stopped to hear their pitches.

Widespread apathy grips Venezuelans, who are being asked to cast ballots in Sunday's elections for 2,459 local council members across the country.

The elections have been overshadowed by the brutal economic crisis overwhelming the South American country, driving masses abroad in search of a better life. Those who stay behind in the once-wealthy oil nation are enduring runaway inflation that has made scarce supplies of food and medicine hard to afford.

The ruling socialist party led by President Nicolas Maduro is expected to sweep the elections. It has nearly paralyzed any alternative voices by cracking down on the opposition movement. The most popular anti-government parties have been banned and leading anti-government figures have been jailed or driven into exile, fearing for their safety.

"If we don't get out and vote, we'll continue to lose ground," said Fernando Melena, who is running to retain his council seat in the opposition stronghold of El Hatillo.

Melena is one of a handful of anti-Maduro candidates competing in the elections, which are being shunned by most opposition parties. By boycotting, opposition leaders hope to delegitimize what they consider an electoral process rigged by the Maduro government.

Opposition candidates like Melena cut ties with their former parties to run. Although he has no illusions about the fairness of the vote, he said it's important not to cede any political space to the government.

But Melena concedes that voter apathy is a major obstacle, with the ruling party's control of the National Electoral Council a major driver of distrust among the opposition's base.

The broader anti-government movement is focused on rallying international condemnation of Maduro on Jan. 10, the start of his second, six-year term. The United States, many European nations and most Latin American countries have rejected the May 20 balloting that he won by a landslide as a sham.

Still, the opposition mayor of El Hatillo led a campaign rally inside a bakery recently, urging residents to back their council representatives at the polls.

"I ask you to participate, even though there're a lot of people who don't want to," said Mayor Elias Sayegh, who split from the opposition and defied an election boycott to win his office last year.

He is battling a historic trend of low turnout at Venezuela's municipal elections. Analysts estimate abstention could surpass 50 percent this time. In 2013's combined elections for mayors and council members, abstention was reported at 41 percent.

Carlos Maldonado, a real estate broker in El Hatillo, wasn't convinced by the mayor, saying he plans to stay home on Sunday.

"All the electoral events are just a show," Maldonado said. "There's nothing that's going to change that."

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Fabiola Sanchez on Twitter: https://twitter.com/fisanchezn