Stuffed ballots, empty stomachs |ııı| In the name of democracy, Venezuela bans the opposition

| CARACASScreen Shot 2017-12-14 at 1.15.06 PM

Yet Nicolás Maduro’s dirty tricks cannot disguise his regime’s failures

LET us get ready for 2018, boomed Nicolás Maduro as he hailed the third great victory of the Venezuelan people. The president was gloating over a vote on December 10th, in which his United Socialist Party, which has looted and misgoverned the country into economic ruin, bagged more than 90% of the country’s mayoral contests.

It was a hollow triumph. The three main opposition parties fielded no candidates, having reasonably called the voting a sham. (The other victories were equally flawed: the creation in July of a rubber-stamp constituent assembly to replace an elected legislature, and a ballot for governors in October.)

Dizzy with these dubious successes, Mr Maduro’s eye is now on a bigger contest, next year’s presidential poll. He has not formally declared, but Tareck El Aissami, the vice-president, says his boss hopes for another six-year term.

With that in mind, the regime is now determined to knock out rivals. Mr Maduro has declared that the three parties that shunned the mayoral ballot have disqualified themselves from all future elections. They will disappear from the political map, he snapped. The constituent assembly, which is itself a one-party institution, has backed this punitive act. It declared, absurdly, that this view reflected its belief in multi-party politics.

The ban may be partly superfluous. Leopoldo López, who leads one opposition party, Voluntad Popular, is under house arrest. Henrique Capriles, who leads another, Primero Justicia, has been barred from seeking office for 15 years, supposedly because of “administrative irregularities” as state governor. He says he will at least enter the primaries.

Potential leftist contenders are also being targeted. The highest-profile is Rafael Ramírez, a long-term rival of the president, who was sacked as ambassador to the UN after he criticised his country’s economic policy. On December 12th Tarek Saab, the chief prosecutor, said corruption charges were being drawn up against Mr Ramírez.

Mr Maduro may yet be surprised by a dark horse. One name being aired is Lorenzo Mendoza, the boss of Polar, a big food-and-drinks firm. When he attended a baseball game last week, the crowd chanted “Presidente!”. He denies any political hopes, but if he were to run, voters might prefer a leader who fills plates, rather than leaving them empty.