Venezuela Regime Claims 17 Governor Races, Defying Predictions
(Bloomberg) -- Venezuela’s autocratic regime claimed wins in 17 of 23 state governor elections, a showing that dramatically defied polls that had predicted widespread opposition gains.
The government of President Nicolas Maduro on Sunday held voting stations open hours past their scheduled 6 p.m. closing. Officials emerged about 10:15 p.m. to announce results they said vindicated the policies of Maduro, heir to the office once held by strongman Hugo Chavez.
“This only happens in Venezuela,” said a jubilant Maduro, flanked by his ministers. “And this is only done by Chavismo. Chavismo is alive, it’s in the streets and victorious.”
Maduro called the long-delayed elections only after months of rioting, making a riposte to accusations that he’s trying to end a six-decade democracy in a country once made prosperous by oil. Opposition supporters participated in the process on hopes that a strong showing could usher in talks to end the grinding political and economic crisis. Now the regime’s shock victories threaten to revive the street violence that claimed more than 120 lives since April.
Polls had widely predicted that the opposition would win the vast majority of the nation’s states. Venebarometro, a Caracas consultancy, said that 52 percent of likely voters favored opposition candidates, compared with 28 percent for Maduro’s allies.
Gerardo Blyde, mayor of a Caracas municipality and head of the opposition’s campaign, said late Sunday that the alliance refused to accept the results. He called for a state-by-state audit and asked candidates to restart street demonstrations.
“Neither Venezuela nor the world believes the story that’s been told,” he said in a news release.
The traditional announcement of the end of voting hours never occurred Sunday. But by 10:15 p.m., the National Electoral Council said it had counted 95.8 percent of the votes. The results were “irreversible” in 22 states, said Tibisay Lucena, its leader. One state remained undecided.
Dimitris Pantoulas, a Caracas political consultant, said that the onus is on the opposition to prove the results were concocted.
“All of us think fraud happened, but they have to prove it,” he said. “Once it happens, it’s clear that Chavismo doesn’t care anymore, and it’s looking at a confrontation not only within Venezuela, but with the international community. That means sanctions and sanctions and sanctions.”
The day had passed in relative calm. Voters said they were determined to be heard after a year in which Maduro had convened a special legislative body to supersede all institutions, imprisoned his critics and had been personally sanctioned by the U.S.
Carmen Paredes, a 40-year-old university professor, spent five hours waiting in line after her election center in east Caracas was moved about five blocks, part of a wave of relocations that she attributed to mischief. Only half the voting machines were functioning.
“They’re doing this to dishearten us, but it won’t work,” she said.
On Sunday, Maduro took to the airwaves periodically from daybreak to sundown. He said little of his own party’s candidates, but repeatedly called on Venezuelans to vote and celebrate their rights.
“They’ve said that we’re a dictatorship. No.” Maduro said in a video showing himself strolling about the white marble halls of the presidential palace, Miraflores, coffee in hand. “We’re a democratic, rebellious people.”
David Smilde, an analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America, a nonprofit research group that supports human rights, said the government had been moved by international isolation.
“They do care, otherwise they wouldn’t have had an election,” he said. “They had to thread the needle: They wanted international recognition on the one hand, but they want to keep power and keep the opposition under their thumb on the other.”
Venezuela’s two dominant blocs have values that are difficult to reconcile. The opposition demands new presidential elections, the release of political prisoners and acceptance of humanitarian aid. Maduro’s supporters want a continuation of generous social programs widely seen as unsustainable, and a foreign policy hostile to the U.S. and other nations it casts as imperialist.
Janelyn Cortesia, a 34-year-old call-center operator from Caracas’s eastern slums, said Sunday she was voting for Maduro’s ally in Miranda state after promises to improve a food-delivery program.
“I’m voting for a better future today,” she said. “It’s what we need, because there is almost nothing available.”
The dramatic crash in oil prices has left shelves empty and made hunger widespread. As the economy collapsed, so did Venezuela’s medical and education systems -- and its democratic values. Maduro has convened a supreme body called the National Constituent Assembly to rewrite the constitution and ferret out enemies.
The government’s hand was similarly heavy in organizing Sunday’s vote.
The Electoral Council refused to remove unsuccessful opposition primary candidates from the roster, apparently in an attempt to confuse voters. Ballots with a dozen names contained as many as four who were no longer running.
And the agency last week abruptly relocated some 200 voting stations, with many in relatively well-off opposition areas moved to crime-ridden neighborhoods. Officials organized buses and carpools to transport voters to locations almost an hour away.
Despite the obstacles, many voters said participation was a democratic duty.
Luis Isza, a 34-year-old computer technician, saw Sunday’s race as a means to demonstrate to the world that the opposition is Venezuela’s dominant political force. “It may only be symbolic, but it’s the only way we have to show our discontent,” he said.
The reported results failed to reflect that unhappiness.
Throughout Sunday, state television continuously displayed the hashtag #VenezuelaDemocraciaPlena, or Venezuela full democracy.
After the results, the hashtag changed to #VenezuelaVictoriaPopular.
--With assistance from Fabiola Zerpa and Noris Soto
To contact the reporter on this story: Andrew Rosati in Caracas at email@example.com.
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Vivianne Rodrigues at firstname.lastname@example.org, Stephen Merelman, Daniel Ten Kate