By Andrew Cawthorne and Eyanir Chinea
CARACAS, Oct 15 (Reuters) – Venezuelan opposition leaders on Sunday hailed a “gigantic victory” in gubernatorial elections against President Nicolas Maduro’s government after failing to dislodge him in protests earlier this year.
The ruling Socialist Party controls 20 of 23 state governorships, but opinion polls showed the opposition coalition likely to upend that, given voter anger at hunger and shortages stemming from an economic meltdown.
Official results were due later on Sunday night. But opposition leaders took to the stage at their headquarters in a confident mood soon after voting ended.
“What has happened today in Venezuela … is an enormous victory, a gigantic victory of historic dimensions,” Democratic Unity spokesman Ramon Aveledo said to applause from fellow opposition leaders and supporters at a Caracas hotel.
Aveledo said he would love to give the names of newly elected governors, based on information from the opposition’s observers at vote centers, but could not do that before official announcements by the election board.
Having failed to remove Maduro in protests earlier this year that led to 125 deaths and thousands of arrests, the opposition hoped a strong showing on Sunday could be parlayed into victory in next year’s presidential election.
The government made liberal use of state resources in its candidates’ campaigns, evoked popular former leader Hugo Chavez at every rally, and appealed to Venezuelans’ exhaustion with political turmoil to vote against “candidates of violence.”
There were no predictions from the government camp in downtown Caracas by early evening, although campaign head Jorge Rodriguez told reporters: “Peace has won.”
Even if the government loses most governorships, the newly elected opposition officials may not be allowed to take office.
Maduro has said they must swear allegiance to a new legislative superbody elected in July.
But the opposition does not recognize the entirely pro-government Constituent Assembly, which supersedes all other institutions, including the opposition-controlled congress.
The pro-government election board put up hurdles for the opposition. Those included the relocation of 200 voting centers on security grounds – mostly away from pro-opposition areas – and a refusal to update the ballot to remove names of opposition politicians who lost in primaries, likely confusing voters.
There were also technical glitches such as electrical failures – which have become commonplace in the crisis-hit economy – though the government said these were minimal.
MADURO: ‘WE ARE NO DICTATORSHIP’
Additionally, numerous opposition leaders and activists, including former presidential hopefuls Henrique Capriles and Leopoldo Lopez, are barred from office or have been detained on accusations of coup-plotting, corruption and other charges.
With polls closing around 6 p.m. (2200 GMT) – although those still in line were being allowed to cast their ballots – participation appeared to be less than in past presidential and congressional elections, but probably about 60 percent.
“I used to have enough food in my house to feed my children tomorrow, but now no longer. Hunger motivates us to vote,” said Zulay Acosta, voting early in southern Puerto Ordaz city.
The government has cast Sunday’s votes, from remote Amazon and Andean communities to heavily populated Caribbean coastal areas, as evidence Venezuela is no dictatorship, contrary to increased global criticism this year.
Officials also presented the election as a vote against U.S. President Donald Trump, who has imposed some sanctions on Venezuela, particularly targeting Maduro’s top officials for alleged rights abuses and corruption.
“They have said we are a dictatorship. No. We are a rebellious, egalitarian people,” Maduro said on Sunday. “Democracy has triumphed.”
Some opposition supporters, particularly youths in a self-styled “Resistance” movement on the front line of street battles earlier this year, had accused their leaders of selling out and legitimizing a dictator by taking part in Sunday’s vote.
But most appeared to have swallowed those qualms.
“Too many people were dying, with few results,” said student Manuel Melo, 20, who lost a kidney from the impact of a water cannon during one protest. “I agree with the elections.”
Should the government suffer big reverses, it can mitigate them by reducing funding and responsibilities for governors, as it has in the past when local posts have gone to the opposition.
After the election, the opposition will seek to throw the focus back to its main demands: guarantees of free and fair conditions for the 2018 presidential vote, freedom for jailed activists, foreign humanitarian aid and authority for congress.
With an eye to easing foreign pressure as well as preventing more street protests, the government wants to revive a stalled mediation bid with the opposition in the Dominican Republic. (Additional reporting by Isaac Urrutia in Maracaibo, Francisco Aguilar in Barinas, Corina Pons, Andreina Aponte, Deisy Buitrago and Alexandra Ulmer in Caracas, Mircely Guanipa in Maracay and Maria Ramirez in Puerto Ordaz; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Peter Cooney)
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