One of the primary goals of the ongoing protests in Venezuela over the past year or so was to force their dictator, Nicolas Maduro, to stand for re-election as the nation’s basically defunct constitution demands. Given how badly the nation has imploded under his rule and the bloody violence taking place out in the streets, this was clearly something that Maduro wasn’t terribly interested in. But this week something changed. Maduro indicated that elections may well take place this year, but international observers are already smelling a rat. (Reuters)

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro looked sure to stand for re-election in a presidential vote due by the end of April where the ruling Socialists hope to trump a squabbling opposition despite an economic crisis and foreign sanctions.

The unpopular leader, whom foes decry as a dictator who has wrecked the OPEC member’s economy, said he would run if the ruling Socialist Party asked him, even as Venezuelans reel from empty shelves and the world’s fastest inflation.

“I‘m ready to be a candidate,” he told reporters during a rally on Tuesday of cheering red-shirted supporters.

The 55-year-old former bus driver and union leader, who succeeded Hugo Chavez in 2013, benefits from a formidable political machinery, a compliant national election board, and a core of support from poor Venezuelans reliant on food handouts.

This is a nation where people are hunting for rabbits and breaking into zoos to kill the animals there in an attempt to put some food on the table. Their once powerful oil industry is basically shut down. Farms sitting on some of the richest, most fertile land on the continent sit idle because the government effectively robbed them until they were driven out of business. Store shelves are empty and medical supplies are nearly impossible to obtain unless you are part of the ruling socialist party. Those who object are beaten down in the streets, imprisoned or even killed. So how could this guy possibly win an election?

Well, when you control the Board of Elections and stock it with your own supporters who will be “counting” and certifying the votes, as well as the militias who will “supervise” the comings and goings at the polls, it’s really not that much of a challenge at all. That’s the primary worry of the opposition parties in the country and international election observers. If there’s one thing worse than Maduro simply refusing to hold an election and staying in place as a dictator it’s the prospect of him holding a sham election to tamp down complaints about his regime. Such a move would lend a false air of legitimacy to his presidency and further muddy the waters.

Unfortunately, the only option available to the opposition in many cases will be to boycott the elections. That’s what happened in the regional voting last year and the results were basically a clean sweep for the ruling socialist party. The idea that Maduro couldn’t pull that off on a national level is a fantasy. Unfortunately, he has the backing of Russia, China and a few other authoritarian regimes, so sanctions against him will never have the full, desired effect. This leaves the people of Venezuela with few options, and their nation is beginning to look more and more like Cuba in the early days of Castro.