CARACAS, (AP):As Governor Henrique Capriles campaigned for president of Venezuela last April, he couldn't venture more than a few steps without being hounded by dozens of sharp-elbowed cameramen and photographers.
Nearly eight months later, the visibly thinner and exhausted opposition leader is accompanied by just a handful of journalists at what was supposed to be one of the final, electrifying opposition rallies ahead of this weekend's mayoral elections.
Critics say the shrinking media coverage has been deliberate.
Even while Venezuelans endure their toughest economic crisis in 15 years of socialist rule, the opposition has been largely knocked from public view by what they claim is a government-led campaign to intimidate media outlets that give airtime to the opposition and the nation's mounting woes.
Between January and September, the number of attacks on journalists, cases of harassment and reports of censorship has risen 56 per cent compared with the first nine months of 2012, according to a complaint filed by press freedom groups in October to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
Even more damaging has been the sale of several media outlets once critical of the government to owners who more closely follow the official line.
Capriles calls it an "information blockade," and warns that President Nicolas Maduro's alleged attempts to silence the opposition signal a more authoritarian style of rule to come unless voters resoundingly reject his policies at the ballot box today.
The election for mayors and city councils is a dogfight in this deeply polarised country.
It is also Maduro's first electoral test since he defeated Capriles in April by a razor-thin margin following Hugo Chavez's death from cancer.
"Without a doubt this is one of the toughest moments in our history to get our message out," said Capriles, who has been criss-crossing the country stumping for opposition candidates.
Yet for all the opposition complaints, analysts say the government's biggest trump card going into the vote isn't its grip on the media but rather Maduro's political instincts.
Facing a steady decline in the polls, Maduro on November 9 seized control of several retail outlets, arrested dozens of store managers and slashed prices on plasma TVs and fridges to strike a blow against opponents he accuses of waging an "economic war" against his government.
The measures have led to a steady improvement in the president's approval rating.
The most likely result from today's vote is the opposition winning in Caracas and other big cities while the government remains dominant in the countryside, giving each side a claim on victory.