Months before Venezuela’s opposition coalition called for abstention in Sunday’s presidential election, college student Ana Romano had already decided not to vote.
While volunteering as a witness in October’s election for state governors, Romano said, she lost count of the number of times activists for the ruling Socialist Party walked into voting booths on the pretext of “assisting” voters - a tactic the opposition says is illegal intimidation.
Romano said pro-government workers at the voting center in the rural state of Portuguesa also refused to close its doors at 6:00 p.m. as per regulations, keeping it open for an extra hour while Socialist Party cadres rounded up votes.
Her experience illustrates why some in Venezuela’s opposition say they will boycott Sunday’s presidential vote despite anger at the South American nation’s unraveling under unpopular President Nicolas Maduro.
“It was four of them against me and I was 20 years old: I couldn’t do anything,” Romano said, adding that she did not file an official report because the other poll center workers would not have signed it - and because there was no paper available to do so.
“I don’t want to have anything to do with this upcoming election,” Romano said. “We’ve already made that mistake.”
Reuters could not independently verify details of her account. Venezuela’s National Electoral Council - the government body in charge of organizing elections - did not respond to phone calls seeking comment.
Venezuela, a once-wealthy OPEC nation, is suffering hyperinflation and widespread food shortages as its economy collapses, leading hundreds of thousands to flee into neighboring countries.
Yet, despite popularity ratings languishing around 20 percent, Maduro is expected to secure a second, six-year term in his deeply divided country, in part due to low opposition turnout.
Some opposition members say participation would be pointless in the face of efforts to tilt the playing field in favor of Maduro, a former union leader who was elected in 2013 after the death of his mentor, late socialist leader Hugo Chavez.
They cite tactics ranging from the kind of small-scale election-center tricks described by Romano to the detention of the most prominent opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, the coercion of government workers to vote for Maduro and the heavy use of state resources in his campaign.
Many in the opposition say there are inadequate guarantees of a free and fair vote: they point to a ban on Western election observers. The government says they would violate its national sovereignty.
The Venezuelan Electoral Observatory, an independent local election monitoring group, has also flagged problems that include an inadequate timeframe to update the electoral register and develop a network of poll center witnesses, and a reduction in real-time audits of results.
Washington, which has imposed sanctions on Maduro’s government, has said it will not recognize the results of Sunday’s vote.