CARACAS: President Nicolas Maduro faces a key test Sunday in municipal polls the Venezuelan opposition say is really a referendum on his performance amid soaring crime, high inflation, and shortages of basic household items.
Voting began at 1100 GMT to elect mayors to 337 municipalities and officials to more than 2,000 city councils.
The opposition, which now controls about 50 municipalities, is aiming to double that number.
However its greatest challenge will be to maintain control of the country's biggest cities -- especially in the Caracas metropolitan area and the oil city of Maracaibo.
Maduro, the handpicked successor of leftist icon Hugo Chavez, was narrowly elected to office in April, one month after his popular predecessor died of cancer.
A former bus driver, leftist stalwart and cabinet minister, Maduro tried to present himself as a man of action as the economy of Venezuela, a country with the world's largest oil reserves, teeters on the verge of chaos.
Venezuela's National Assembly gave Maduro powers to rule by decree in November to fight corruption and to respond to what he claims is an "economic war" unleashed by the opposition with US support.
He immediately rolled out a series of measures to force price cuts, notably in household appliances and automobiles, and threaten speculators with prison.
Pre-election surveys show Venezuela's middle class welcoming Maduro's populist show of force, and seem less inclined than expected to punish his party at the ballot box.
"Maduro appears to be governing for the first time" since he was elected, pollster Luis Vicente Leon told AFP.
"Now his speeches are accompanied by action, so he is seen as president who, whether you like what he's doing or not, has taken the bull by the horns."
At a time when Venezuela has been experiencing a record 54-percent inflation since January and is facing shortages of basic goods like toilet paper, "a crazy paradox occurs: the one who is benefiting from the crisis is Maduro," Leon said.
In effect, said fellow pollster Miguel Velarde of the Alpha Politikos Institute, recent developments in the economic arena "have strengthened confidence in the political leadership."
Venezuela also has one of the highest murder rates in Latin America, higher than Mexico and Colombia, according to government and UN figures.
'Historic moment' for the opposition
The Democratic Unity Table, or MUD, the main opposition coalition, says that the municipal elections will be decisive for its future.
Its leader Henrique Capriles, who lost to Maduro in April, has called it a "historic moment" that will assess the balance of power after 14 years of "Chavista" rule.
"We must be disciplined with our sentiment for change and express it forcefully," the Miranda state governor said Wednesday in one of the final opposition rallies before the vote.
Opposition candidate Antonio Ledezma is expected to be re-elected in Caracas, but the ruling party candidate Miguel Perez Pirela -- a 36-year-old philosopher whose appearances on state television have made him a celebrity -- may win in Maracaibo.
Late Saturday, Maduro addressed the nation and called for calm and "serenity" given that some of the posts will be "highly contested."
He said the government would not tolerate "madness" from any group, and said that soldiers and police had been deployed to maintain order.
"Let's go all patriots to vote, to deliver on this day a victory for our Comandante and guarantee peace and the future of our motherland," Maduro wrote on his Twitter feed on Sunday, referring to the late Chavez.
Polls close at 2330 GMT, and election officials said the first results could be out three hours later.