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Venezuela is holding Presidential elections on Sunday 20 May. The country is in the midst of a political, economic and social crisis. The opposition and outside observers doubt that the elections will be free and fair. For this reason, most of the opposition parties and their senior figures have called for a boycott of the election.

The current President is Nicolás Maduro, who succeeded Hugo Chávez after his death in March 2013. Hugo Chávez had led Venezuela for 13 years, and undertaken sweeping social and economic reforms. Mr Maduro, who had served as Chávez’s Vice President, won a Presidential election held the month after Hugo Chávez’s death, narrowly defeating opposition leader Henrique Capriles by less than 2% of the vote.

President Maduro is running again as the candidate for his United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV).

The political crisis in the country stems from a battle for legitimacy between the government and opposition.

In December 2015, the opposition won the National Assembly elections by a landslide, securing a crucial two-thirds majority. However, a Supreme Court which is packed by government loyalists blocked most of the legislation that the National Assembly passed by declaring it unconstitutional. The Court also blocked the opposition’s attempt to call a recall election for Maduro.

In July 2017 a new body-the Constituent Assembly- full of government supporters was elected in a disputed and widely condemned election. While the new Cosntituent Assembly was meant to re-write the Constitution, in August 2017, it assumed for itself legislative powers, effectively neutering the National Assembly.

The government then went on to win municipal and gubernatorial elections at the end of 2017. The opposition claimed these elections were not fair and that the results may have been rigged. The results left the opposition reeling and exercising even less control in the country.

Internationally brokered talks between the opposition and government broke down in February 2018, when the government decided to go ahead with Presidential elections without instigating any of the reforms of the electoral system the opposition had asked for. The elections were first set for March, but then were postponed until May.

The major opposition parties all decided to boycott the elections. However, one opposition leader, Henri Falcón, a former supporter of Hugo Chávez, decided to break with the opposition and stand as a candidate.

Two other much less well-known candidates entered the race. One has now dropped out of the race and endorsed Mr Falcón.

Venezuela is facing a severe economic and social crisis, that many observers attribute, at least in part, to the economic policies of Mr Maduro and his government. This has led to falling support for his administration. Mr Maduro’s government blame the sanctions imposed by the United States, who he claims are waging an “economic war” on the country, supported, in his eyes, by the opposition.

60% of Venezuelans oppose the US sanctions regime according to a poll in December 2017.

Although Falcón may have more support than Maduro, Maduro’s control of the organs of state, a divided opposition, and the prospect that many opposition supporters will boycott the elections mean most observers believe Maduro will win another term.

Venezuela’s economy is in turmoil. Venezuela was one of the most prosperous countries in Latin America for most of the second half of the 20th Century. The economy is built on oil and Venezuela has the world’s largest proven oil reserves. However, after years of economic mismanagement and a fall in the price of oil since 2014, the economy is now in the midst of a severe crisis with hyperinflation, a currency that has lost almost all its value, and the government defaulting on its debt.

The collapsing economy has led to a humanitarian crisis with, amongst other things, food and medicine shortages. Hunger is widespread, diseases such as tuberculosis and HIV which were once well managed, are now spreading. Many Venezuelans have responded to these crises by leaving the country in a continuing and growing wave of mass migration.

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