Analysis: Is Venezuela a dictatorship? A key election will offer clues.

Venezuelans go to the polls this Sunday in state elections seen as a test of President Nicolás Maduro’s willingness to share power. But with polls showing the ruling socialists at risk of landslide losses, the authoritarian government appears to be falling back on a trifecta of tactics.

Manipulation, confusion and fear.

Two and half months after the creation of a super congress that gave the government nearly absolute power, Maduro has called the vote for state governors clear evidence that democracy remains alive here. Nevertheless, opposition leaders are decrying a dirty campaign by the Venezuelan government, which President Donald Trump has denounced as a “socialist dictatorship.”

State media is airing almost round-the-clock supportive coverage of pro-government candidates, while portraying their challengers as hypocritical and inept. All candidates, meanwhile, are being limited to four minutes of political ads per day on independent networks that now survive by self-censoring.

As often happened during the reign of former president Hugo Chávez – who named Maduro his successor before his death in 2013 – food baskets are being doled out to hungry voters at pro-government rallies. In a move seen as purposely misleading, the ballots for Sunday’s election will include a host of candidates who lost in the primaries and are not supposed to be running. This week, the government abruptly announced it would relocate a number of voting centers for “security reasons.” Opposition leaders said the move involved 205 locations in heavily anti-government districts in 16 states.

That, critics say, amounts to manipulation and confusion.

And then there’s fear.

Here in Vargas, a coastal state just north of Caracas, for instance, the brother of opposition candidate Jose Manuel Olivares was detained last week by intelligence police for allegedly stealing a car – a charge his family denies. While stumping for votes, the…

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