Election campaign posters of Erika Farias, government candidate for Mayor of Libertador district, are pictured in Caracas
By Andrew Cawthorne and Eyanir Chinea
CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelans voted on Sunday in mayoral races that the ruling Socialist Party looked sure to sweep, deepening opposition disarray and strengthening President Nicolas Maduro ahead of a probable 2018 re-election campaign.
Protesting a system they say serves Maduro's "dictatorship," three of the largest opposition parties boycotted the nationwide polls for 335 municipal mayors and a parallel vote for one state governorship, which the socialists won.
The president said the boycott should disqualify them from future elections, raising the specter of a ban for the First Justice, Popular Will and Democratic Action parties in next year's presidential race in the OPEC nation.
"They won't participate, they will disappear from the political map," Maduro said after casting his vote in Caracas,
Some other parties in the opposition coalition did not join Sunday's boycott and ran candidates. That confused opposition supporters already despondent over the failure to weaken Maduro in violent protests that took 125 lives earlier this year.
Under Maduro's rule since 2013, Venezuela has endured one of the worst economic meltdowns in Latin American history.
"If we're going to change the government, we need to do it democratically," said 81-year-old retiree Raul Ocana. "It was a huge mistake (by opposition parties) not to participate."
After the socialists notched surprise wins in October gubernatorial elections, they were confident of repeating the feat on Sunday to increase the party's current share of roughly 70 percent of mayorships.
Some government employees said on Sunday they were being flooded with text messages urging them to show they had voted by posting their ID numbers to state-run websites and to upload pictures of voting centers to social networks.
"They won't leave us alone," said a government ministry employee who requested anonymity.
Opposition activists said the government abused state resources, including bribing people to vote with handouts of food vouchers worth 500,000 bolivars - more than a monthly minimum wage or about $5 at the black market rate.
Voting lines were much thinner, however, than during past elections, and the election board announced participation of 47 percent, compared to more than 60 percent in the October poll.
"What happened today wasn't an election, and no one will see it as such," said the hardline opposition party Popular Will, which boycotted the vote.
"Venezuelans want to vote in free and fair conditions."
SOCIALISTS WIN ZULIA GOVERNORSHIP
In the parallel gubernatorial election on Sunday, Socialist Party candidate Omar Prieto won a rerun of the October election in western Zulia state.
Opposition leader Juan Pablo Guanipa had won that governorship in October, but the election was annulled and he was barred from holding office after he refused to swear allegiance to the pro-Maduro legislative superbody.
Former Zulia governor Manuel Rosales ran on the opposition ticket, but Guanipa supporters and other sectors of the opposition boycotting Sunday's vote had called him a "traitor."
Yon Goicoechea, an opposition activist running for mayor in the wealthy Caracas suburb of El Hatillo, said it was self-destructive for larger anti-Maduro parties to abstain and hand political victories to the Socialist Party.
"There's reticence to participate because the national election board doesn't offer guarantees or impartiality," Goicoechea, who is just out of jail for alleged coup-plotting, told Reuters. "But the solution cannot be giving up the right to vote. ... The abstentionists will regret it within two weeks."
Maduro's approval ratings have fallen by half since he was elected in 2013 following the death of Socialist leader Hugo Chavez. Despite the nation's economic problems and the accusations of squashing democracy, he is enjoying a political upturn after the October gubernatorial vote.
Maduro is expected to be the Socialists' candidate in the 2018 presidential election and maintains support among party loyalists like retiree Jose Flores, 71.
"It's a way of showing other countries that there's no dictatorship here," Flores said outside a voting center on the poor west side of Caracas. "On the contrary, what we have is peace and democracy."
(Additional reporting by Johnny Carvajal, Leon Wietfeld and Deisy Buitrago in Caracas; Maria Ramirez in Puerto Ordaz; Anggy Polanco in San Cristobal; Tibisay Romero in Valencia and; Mircely Guanipa in Paraguana; Editing by Peter Cooney and Will Dunham)