VENEZUELA – President Maduro set to run for re-election in 2018

(CNS) – 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 of cheering red-shirted supporters broadcast on state TV.

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 hard core of support from poor Venezuelans reliant on state food handouts.

Critics from opposition politicians to Western powers doubt authorities will allow a free and fair vote, given the barring of some opposition figures from running plus abuse of state resources in campaigning. Some fear outright fraud.

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