Opposition vies for landmark victory in polarized Venezuela

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Voters wait in line to cast their ballots outside a polling station during regional elections in Caracas, Venezuela, Sunday, Oct. 15, (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)
Voters wait in line to cast their ballots outside a polling station during regional elections in Caracas, Venezuela, Sunday, Oct. 15, (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

Caracas, Venezuela (AP) — Sunday’s elections in Venezuela could tilt a majority of the country’ 23 governorships back into opposition control for the first time in nearly two decades of socialist party rule — though the government said the newly elected governors will be subordinate to a pro-government constitutional assembly.

The election was being watched closely as an indicator of how much support President Nicolas Maduro and the socialist movement founded by his predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez, maintain amid soaring inflation and crippling food and medical shortages that continue to wreak havoc in Venezuelans’ daily lives.

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Anti-government candidates were projected in polls to win more than half the races, but this success depended heavily on their ability to motivate disenchanted voters.

Voting got off to a relatively slow start in Miranda, the country’s second most populous state that surrounds the capital. Some polling centers were nearly empty in the morning, but voting appeared to pick up in the afternoon. Some people were still in line waiting to cast ballots after the official closing time. Venezuelan law requires election officials to keep voting centers open until everyone still in line has voted.

Both Venezuela’s opposition and pro-government leaders reported high levels of participation as voting counting got underway, but no official results had been released early Sunday night.

Socialist party leader Jorge Rodriguez said participation was “much higher” Sunday than during the last regional vote in 2012, when 9.2 million Venezuelans cast ballots.

Opposition leader Ramon Guillermo Aveledo described the election as “a gigantic popular victory of historic proportions.”

“The Venezuelan people have expressed their desire with their vote,” he said at the opposition’s headquarters. “They have expressed their protest and they have expressed their hope.”

The election comes during one of the most turbulent years in recent Venezuelan history. Four months of anti-government protests that began in April left at least 120 people dead. In August, the new pro-government constitutional assembly ruling with virtually unlimited powers was installed after a vote that opposition leaders refused to participate in and that the National Electoral Council was accused of manipulating.

With few checks and balances remaining, a rising number of foreign leaders are calling Venezuela a dictatorship.

In a taped message released Sunday, Maduro urged Venezuelans to vote in what he said would be a demonstration that the nation maintains a “vigorous democracy.”

“They’ve said we are a dictatorship,” Maduro said, walking calmly while holding a cup of coffee. “No. We are a democratic people, rebellious, and with an egalitarian sensibility.”

Opposition leaders scoffed at Maduro’s suggestion the election would be held up as proof that Venezuela remains a vibrant democracy.

“We are fighting to recover our democracy,” said Henrique Capriles, one of the opposition’s most recognizable figures. “Democracy is not just voting.”

Maduro has warned that new governors will have to take a loyalty oath submitting to the authority of the assembly that is re-writing the nation’s constitution. Opposition candidates have vowed not to submit themselves to an assembly they consider illegal.

The regional elections were originally scheduled to take place last December, but the pro-government National Electoral Council postponed the vote after polls showed socialist candidates were widely slated to lose. The vote was rescheduled for this December, but delegates at the new constitutional assembly later moved it up to October.

Days before the vote, the electoral council announced it was moving more than 200 voting centers, predominantly in opposition strongholds. Council officials defended the relocations as a security measure in areas where violent protests took place in July.

The opposition accused the council of trying to suppress turnout among its base — a significant portion of which has grown disillusioned about the possibility of change and lost faith in leaders they perceive as disorganized and divided.

Opposition-arranged buses were transporting voters to the new sites Sunday — some of which were nearly an hour away. Other voters from middle-class neighborhoods were being sent to vote in poor communities where crime is high.

Susana Unda, a homemaker who voted for Carlos Ocariz, the opposition’s candidate in Miranda, used her truck to transport voters whose polling sites were relocated.

“I was born in a democracy and I want to die in a democracy,” she said.

Electoral council president Tibisay Lucena said the election was proceeding with the lowest number of reported irregularities that Venezuela had seen in an election, though the independent Venezuelan Electoral Observatory reported several incidents of harassment and voter intimidation.

Luis Lander, the group’s director, said those incidents included reports of pro-government supporters on motorcycles threatening voters gathered at polling sites. He said the number of voting centers that opened late was also higher than in previous elections.

Socialist candidates urged Venezuelans to stick with the egalitarian principles installed by Chavez while also promising change.

“People don’t want more protests,” said Hector Rodriguez, the young, charismatic pro-government candidate challenging Ocariz in Miranda. “They want us to work to improve the economy and security.”

Rodriguez’s message resonated with Sergio Camargo, a private security guard who said he hoped his vote would set Venezuela on the right path.

“I hope that after this vote, the people against the government of President Nicolas Maduro are more sensible and let him govern,” he said.