CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuela’s fractious opposition won a crushing victory in legislative elections Sunday over President Nicolas Maduro’s Socialist Party as the country’s voters rejected the socialist revolution created by the late leader Hugo Chávez.
The National Electoral Council said that preliminary results gave the opposition’s Democratic Unity coalition at least 99 of the 167 seats in the National Assembly compared with 46 for Maduro’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela. Twenty-two seats were too close to call, said Council President Tibisay Lucena, although opposition leaders said they expected to win the majority of those up for grabs to have a final total of at least 113 seats.
If those projections hold true, the Democratic Unity coalition would have the two-thirds super-majority needed to rewrite laws, call a Constitutional Assembly and start a recall referendum against Maduro. They are also expected to pass an amnesty law freeing political prisoners.
“It’s a huge win for the opposition,” said David Smilde, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America. “It’s worrying that 22 seats haven’t been decided, as that makes the difference as to what the opposition can do.”
The Electoral Council said about 74% of the country’s roughly 19 million eligible voters participated.
A somber-looking Maduro addressed his followers immediately after the results were released. Maduro said that the socialist party had garnered 42% of the congressional vote, a figure the Council hadn’t released.
“We accept the results,” Maduro said as key members of his government looked on. He blamed the loss on an “economic war” being waged against his government by the country’s “parasitical bourgeoisie.”
“Venezuela won,” celebrating opposition leader and Miranda State Governor Henrique Capriles stated on Twitter late Sunday.
If the Democratic Unity wins more than 112 seats, it could start proceedings to recall Maduro as early as next year, even though his term doesn’t expire until 2019. Maduro, 53, a former bus driver who was handpicked by the cancer-stricken Chávez before his death, has been blamed for Venezuela’s economic woes.
Several controversies marred the election at the last moment. The National Election Council’s ruling junta extended the close of polling by an hour, drawing an angry rebuke by the council’s sole pro-opposition member. Rector Luis Emilio Rondon said in a press conference that “there was no reason to extend the close.” Opposition leaders also criticized the move, saying the decision was taken to allow the government to round up last moment voters in critical districts.
The Council also revoked credentials for the former President of Bolivia, Jorge Quiroga, who criticized the government for continuing to play unfairly, including the absence of press coverage of the Democratic Unity coalition by government-owned television channels.
Last-minute theatrics aside, voting took place without major incidents. After voting, Maduro pledged to work with the incoming National Assembly and said he would schedule working meetings with the new deputies to smooth the transition.
Capriles, 43, narrowly lost to Maduro in a special presidential election in April 2013 after Chávez died.
“This has been an unfair fight,” Capriles said after voting. “The government has used state funds to finance their campaigns.” He stressed that all changes “must be made legally, constitutionally and peacefully.”
Irene Hernandez, 56, a housewife in Caracas, hasn’t voted since the 1990s but stood in a long line of more than 300 people to vote Sunday.
“I always supported Chávez, but I never voted for him,” she said. “Today, I’m here because I’ve had enough. Our situation is so bad, so dire, that we need a change.”
Venezuela’s oil-dependent economy is likely to contract up to 10% this year, and inflation rages at an annual rate of more than 150%. Shortages of basic food, medicine and even toilet paper are common, as Maduro slashed imports to free up dollars to make debt payments and avoid default.
The drop in oil prices has hit Venezuela especially hard. The country sits on the world’s largest oil reserves and derives 95% of its hard currency from crude sales.
Maduro and his party asked voters to give them more time to make the economy better, blaming the downturn on a “war” against their policies by the country’s business elite and outside interests such as the United States and Colombia.
Maduro repeatedly asked Venezuelans to support the socialist party candidates to protect Chávez’s legacy — the anti-capitalistic movement of giving more to the poor called Chávismo — while promising to boost pensions, scholarships and public housing.
“We have to support the revolution and Chávez,” said Jose Luis Reveron, 34, a farm laborer in the central city of La Victoria. “Maduro is doing a great job as president in protecting us from our country’s enemies. Those opposed to the revolution will never return.”
“There is a high rate of participation,” Diosdado Cabello, a close supporter of Maduro and president of the outgoing National Assembly, said after he voted Sunday in the eastern state of Monagas. “This is the 20th election we’ve had in 17 years. We hope that the opposition, which has a history of not accepting election results, will accept these.”
Many voters stocked up on groceries before the election, fearing that a loss by the Democratic Unity coalition would lead to claims of vote-tampering and fraud, as well as demonstrations that could turn violent. Disturbances last year left more than 40 dead when peaceful student demonstrations led to rioting.
Even if the Democratic Unity coalition wins, Maduro and his party could make it difficult for an opposition-dominated assembly to govern. The outgoing assembly could grant Maduro special powers, allowing him to rule by decree. Such a decision would certainly be challenged in the Supreme Court, where Maduro’s supporters are in the majority.
“But this will be uncharted waters for Chávismo, and it is hard to know what will happen,” said Smilde.
A bruising defeat could lead to ruptures within the ruling party, said Tarek Yorde, a Caracas-based political consultant, who has advised socialist party candidates.
If Maduro’s party “loses big, there could be a movement to dump Maduro, as party officials seek to protect their positions,” Yorde said before the results were announced.
Read or Share this story: http://usat.ly/1Qqc1cy