CARACAS: Venezuelans, reeling under a devastating economic crisis, voted Sunday in an election boycotted by the opposition and condemned by much of the international community but expected to hand deeply unpopular President Nicolas Maduro a new mandate.
Maduro, the political heir to the late leftist firebrand Hugo Chavez, has presided over an implosion of once-wealthy oil producer Venezuela's economy since taking office in 2013.
Hyperinflation, food and medicine shortages, rising crime and broken water, power and transportation networks have sparked violent unrest, and left Maduro with a 75 percent disapproval rating.
Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans have fled the South American country in a mass exodus in recent years.
The latest polls put Maduro neck-and-neck with his main rival Henri Falcon, a former army officer who failed to gain the endorsement of the main opposition, which is bitterly divided and has called for a boycott.
A third candidate, evangelical pastor Javier Bertucci, is further back.
A low turnout is expected to give Maduro, who has a tight grip on the electoral and military authorities, a comfortable victory.
Wearing a bright red shirt that identifies him as a "Chavista," the president arrived early at a Caracas polling station along with his wife, former prosecutor Cilia Flores.
"Your vote decides: ballots or bullets, motherland or colony, peace or violence, independence or subordination," said the 55-year-old former bus driver and union leader.
The comments reflected previous statements by the socialist leader that Venezuela is the victim of an "economic war" waged by the conservative opposition and outside powers such as the United States aimed at toppling him.
As the polls opened, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo denounced the election as a "sham".
Small queues of voters, mostly Maduro supporters, formed at some polling stations, but others appeared half empty, AFP correspondents reported from several cities.
The electoral commission issued no early turnout figures. Polling officially ended at 6:00 pm (1000 GMT), but earlier Maduro said polling stations would remain open as long as there were voters waiting in line.
"We are on the final stretch of this great crusade. The most important moment is here: continue voting until the close and safeguard the votes," his rival Falcon said on Twitter.
Hundreds of Venezuelans took to the streets in several Latin American capitals, including Bogota, Lima and Buenos Aires -- as well as in Madrid -- to denounce the vote.
The biggest protest was in Chile's capital Santiago, where more than 1,000 demonstrated against the election. Chile granted 73,000 visas to Venezuelans fleeing the country last year.
- 'A dog's life' -
"I am not taking part in this fraud," said retired teacher Maria Barrantes, 62. "What we are living through is a disaster."
Maritza Palencia, 58, said she would vote for "change," adding that her four sons had "fled" to Colombia to earn a better living.
"For the first time in my life, I am not going to vote because we are living a dog's life, without medicine, without food," said Teresa Paredes, a 56-year-old housewife.
But Rafael Manzanares, 53 and living on government handouts, said he believed Maduro's claim that "things are bad because of the economic war" against the country.
Aware of the popular mood, Maduro vowed an "economic revolution" if reelected.
Falcon promised to dollarize the economy, return companies expropriated by Chavez and allow humanitarian aid, something the president rejects.
Falcon and Bertucci alleged irregularities in the polls, saying the ruling PSUV party was illegally luring voters with rewards of food boxes at special street stalls known as "red spots."
The "red spots" are allowed by electoral authorities but must be at least 200 meters (yards) from polling stations.
Falcon also alleged that observers from his party have been evicted from polling stations, including one who was beaten up and detained.
Some 20.5 million people are eligible to vote in the single-round election to choose a president for a six-year term that begins in January 2019.
Some 300,000 police and troops have been deployed to protect polling stations, which opened at 6:00 am (1000 GMT) and are scheduled to close at 6:00 pm.
- 'Further instability' -
Presidential elections are traditionally held in December, but they were moved up this year by the country's all-powerful and pro-government Constituent Assembly, catching the divided and weakened opposition off-guard.
The Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) opposition coalition has won support from the United States, the European Union and 14 countries of the Lima Group who have called for the vote to be postponed.
Maduro is accused of undermining democracy, usurping the power of the opposition-dominated legislature by replacing it with his Constituent Assembly and cracking down hard on the opposition. Protests in 2017, still fresh in the collective memory, left around 125 people dead.
The MUD's most popular leaders have been sidelined or detained, the boycott their only remaining weapon.
Despite holding the world's largest oil reserves, the country faces ruin, with the IMF citing a drop of 45.0 percent in GDP since Maduro took over in 2013.
The crippled oil industry lacks investment and its assets are increasingly preying to debt settlements as the country defaults.
And worse, the US threatens an oil embargo on top of the sanctions that have hit Venezuela's efforts to renegotiate its debt.
"The crisis is so severe that it could provoke either friction within the ruling civilian-military alliance or social breakdown on a much greater scale," said Phil Gunson, senior analyst with the International Crisis Group.