CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Only a few residents came out to greet opposition candidate Yon Goicoechea as he campaigned on a narrow street in this poor hilltop neighborhood outside Venezuela's capital in the countdown to Sunday's mayoral elections.
Goicoechea enthusiastically introduced himself and shook hands with a man, who then launched into a lecture about opposition politicians turning their backs on ordinary people suffering through the worst economic crisis in the country's history.
"I'm at your service if I can be of any help," responded the stone-faced candidate, before training his eyes on the next indifferent resident of El Hatillo, a district in greater Caracas.
The uncomfortable encounter experienced by Goicoechea mirrors the cold reception many anti-government candidates are receiving across Venezuela as the opposition limps into Sunday's vote bruised by a shock defeat in recent gubernatorial races and deeply divided. Three of the four biggest parties in the Democratic Unity coalition boycotting the race altogether.
The vote for mayors in all of Venezuela's 335 municipalities is the last national election scheduled before next year's presidential race, in which President Nicolas Maduro is expected to seek re-election.
The cold reception doesn't faze Goicoechea, who is no stranger to adversity.
The 33-year-old spent 15 months in jail, without a trial, accused of inciting violence against the state for leading student protests earlier this year.
He walked free in November but has been hounded ever since by criticism from his one-time allies who accuse him validating a sham democracy by agreeing to run in El Hatillo.
Goicoechea, who was granted Spanish citizenship while imprisoned, told The Associated Press that his release was the product of months of negotiations with authorities who offered his freedom in exchange for a pledge to leave the country or compete in elections.
"We are making the campaign a protest," said Goicoechea, adding that every opportunity to expose what he calls the government's lies at the grassroots is precious.
"We must defend these spaces for democracy, to have a place from which to rebuild, to have a place to rethink the opposition," he added.
The last time the opposition refused to compete, in congressional elections in 2005, it strengthened the government's hand for years.
Some analysts say the same divide and conquer tactics will provide a needed boost for Maduro this time as well. The unpopular president will likely seek re-election despite being the target of Venezuelans' scorn for triple-digit inflation, rampant crime and a melting currency.
"The government has the opposition where it really wants it," said Diego Moya-Ocampos, a London-based analyst for IHS Markit.
The opposition's problems stem from a demoralized base following October's gubernatorial elections, said Edgard Gutierrez, coordinator of local pollster Venebarometro.
Opposition candidates suffered a crushing defeat, winning just five of 23 races amid widespread allegations of official vote-buying and irregularities at polling stations. The humiliation only grew when four of its winning candidates took their oath before the constitutional assembly, which many in the opposition consider illegitimate. Its creation by Maduro to usurp the authority of the opposition-controlled Congress fueled months of protests that left more than 120 dead and thousands injured.
The social crisis is also testing the unity of the normally disciplined ruling party. Maduro has shut out dissenters like longtime oil czar Rafael Ramirez, who was forced this week to resign as Venezuela's ambassador to the United Nations after criticizing his handling of the economy.
In the downtown Caracas district of Libertador, long a government stronghold, two former Maduro supporters are making a rare challenge to the president's hand-picked candidate.
"Our democracy is at risk," said one of the leftist candidates, Eduardo Saman, who served as Maduro's chief price regulator but now says he's blocked from even talking to his former boss. "How can the government dialogue with the opposition but not with us?"
Erika Farias, the government's candidate in Libertador, acknowledged that Venezuela's problems are serious. But she said that trusting anyone other than the government to solve them would be misguided.
"What we've done for people in 18 years of revolution, and what we're prepared to do in the future" has allowed the government to connect with voters, she said.
But the frictions in the government pale in comparison to the deep divisions and battling egos in the opposition. Given the disarray, Gutierrez said it's unclear if Maduro's opponents will be able to rally behind a single candidate in next year's presidential election.
"The opposition is condemned to trying to find a solution to its internal problems," he said. "Either that or simply not compete in 2018."