AFP – Millions of Venezuelans voted peacefully in regional elections on Sunday following months of violent protests earlier this year aimed at unseating President Nicolas Maduro.
Many polling stations remained open past the official 6:00 pm (2200 GMT) closing time to cope with lines of voters, the National Election Council (CNE) said, without giving a time when they would close.
No official turnout figures were available, but an electoral commission source estimated turnout at around 60 percent.
Gerardo Blyde, the opposition campaign chief, said some polling stations in opposition-dominated areas had opened late on Sunday morning. However, CNE president Tibisay Lucena said the voting had gone “smoothly and normally”.
Some 18 million people in the crisis-torn South American country were eligible to decide the governors in 23 states. The opposition Democratic Union Roundtable (MUD) termed it a referendum on Maduro’s rule after its street protests had run out of momentum amid a crippling economic crisis.
“In this country, if you eat you do not dress and if you dress you do not eat,” said Victoria Carmona, a 52-year old teacher in San Cristobal.
“I am tired of the mockery of these people who do not want to let go of power,” she said, summing up the anger of opponents of Maduro’s socialist party, which has presided over Venezuela’s stunning economic collapse.
Public opinion surveys predicted that the opposition would win a majority of state governorships despite alleged government dirty tricks to suppress a high turnout through last-minute changes in voting places and other tactics.
“This country either changes or ends up sinking,” 63-year-old Mary Delgado told AFP as she cast her ballot in a school in eastern Caracas, one of some 13,500 voting stations across the country.
In Maracaibo, in eastern Venezuela, Maduro supporter Carmen de Guillen, 52, went out to vote because she believes the government favors “inclusion,” and “cares about the poorest people.”
Maduro appealed for voters to turn out in numbers, to “demonstrate that Venezuela has an exemplary and vigorous democracy.”
Late Sunday, he called the election “a triumph of revolutionary democracy.”
But the opposition MUD alleged government dirty tricks over changes to the locations of 274 polling stations in 16 states from areas where they polled strongly in the 2015 legislative elections.
“If the vote were to be free and fair, the MUD would likely win between 18 and 21 states,” an analysis by the Eurasia Group said.
– Opposition base motivated? –
Sunday’s vote came against the backdrop of an International Monetary Fund report in which it sees Venezuela’s economic downturn, and the suffering of its population, continuing.
Venezuela “remains in a full-blown economic, humanitarian, and political crisis with no end in sight,” the Fund said in a report on Latin American economies.
The country’s economy will have contracted by 35 percent by the end of this year from 2014, and the Fund says it is headed toward hyperinflation, when prices soar uncontrollably every day for a long period.
It said shortages of food and medicine were intensifying what it called a “humanitarian crisis.”
International powers accuse Maduro of dismantling democracy by taking over state institutions in the wake of an economic collapse caused by a fall in the price of oil, its main source of revenue.
Sunday’s polls were the first contested by the opposition since the legislative elections which gave it a majority in the assembly.
The MUD have seen Maduro’s hand strengthened after he faced down four months of protests that killed 125 people, forming a Constituent Assembly packed with his own allies and wresting legislative power from the opposition-dominated national assembly.
For Maduro, the polls were an opportunity to counter allegations of dictatorship at home and abroad leveled at him after forming the Constituent Assembly.
Maduro signaled that the election would effectively be a vote in support of the assembly, which would force even its staunchest critics in the opposition to recognize it.
He said governors-elect would have to be “sworn in and subordinate themselves” to the Assembly, on pain of dismissal.
But the opposition coalition said Maduro’s comments were irrelevant.
“We are in a fight for democracy. This process is not called by the Constituent Assembly, nor Maduro, it is called by the Venezuelan people and by mandate of the constitution,” said Blyde, the opposition campaign chief.
Even if his socialist party suffers heavily at the polls, the elections could still provide a boost for Maduro, analysts suggested.
“Though the government will probably find a way to diminish the importance of the results, it will initially recognize the outcome as it seeks to revive stalled talks with the opposition and stave off additional sanctions,” the Eurasia Group analysis said.