CARACAS -- In his first electoral challenge since narrowly winning the presidency seven months ago, President Nicolás Maduro and his United Socialist Party of Venezuela, or PSUV, were on track to win Venezuela’s municipal race.
With 97.52 percent of the vote counted, the PSUV had won 196 out of 335 mayoral seats while the coalition of opposition parties, known as the MUD, had won 53. But as of late Sunday there were still more than 70 seats that were too close to call.
The PSUV was also the winner of the popular vote, with 49.24 percent of the total, versus the opposition’s 42.72 percent, the National Electoral Council reported.
The MUD entered the race controlling 73 of the 335 mayoral seats. They were betting the country’s economic crisis — which includes the region’s highest inflation and shortages of basic items, such as toilet paper and flour — might allow them to make gains and perhaps even win the popular vote.
In the weeks running up to the race, Maduro rolled out a number of popular economic measures — forcing retailers to slash prices and making it illegal to fire employees without the approval of the Ministry of Labor. And analysts said those measures likely played a role in the PSUV’s strong showing and in sapping opposition enthusiasm. Almost 60 percent of registered voters participated in the race.
Even so, the opposition also held onto key spots, including the district of Caracas and the country’s second largest city, Maracaibo. They also won Barinas, the home state of late President Hugo Chávez, Maduro’s mentor and successor. But the PSUV held Libertador — the largest of five municipalities that make up greater Caracas.
Luca Lusardi, a 47-year-old real estate broker, was among the sparse crowds that turned up early in the opposition stronghold of Chacao. He admitted that Maduro’s recent economic policies might help “motivate” the government faithful.
“It’s very important to vote,” he said. “We’re deciding the future of the country now more than ever.”
Maduro took office in April after his mentor and successor President Hugo Chávez succumbed to cancer after 14 years in office. Since then, Maduro has doubled-down on Chávez’s socialist policies — using the nation’s vast oil wealth to subsidize housing, education and a slew of other government programs — while ostracizing the private sector.
But those policies are generating distortions, including 54 percent annual inflation, a tanking currency and shortages.
Luis Castro, 65, a systems engineer, thought the problems might catch up with Maduro.
“Despite everything, there’s a lot of really pissed off people,” he said. “There are huge problems in the country, there are a lot of people without basic services like water and electricity — you can’t fix that with cheap appliances.”
In the working-class neighborhood of Catia, security forces were guarding the voting center where Maduro and other government officials cast their ballots.
Rafael Batista, a 55-year-old accountant, had voted early but stuck around to help others navigate the maze of security. He said the elections were important because they would “take the temperature of the country and the president’s popularity.”
He said he was convinced the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela would come out ahead.
“They’re challenging our president,” he said. “But we’ll show them and the world, in an undeniable way, that we the people are the majority.”
Opposition leaders had warned of irregularities in the run-up to the vote, and Sunday was no exception. Ramon Guillermo Aveledo, the executive secretary of the opposition coalition, said some state-run media were still running campaign ads, when they were supposed to have ceased on Friday. He said members of the MUD had filed protests before the National Electoral Council, which is dominated by government loyalists.
The Ministry of Interior said it had recorded 141 irregularities.
After the April presidential election, the opposition refused to acknowledge Maduro’s win. On Sunday, the president called on all sides to accept the results.
“If we win a mayor’s post by one vote we’ll accept it,” he said. “And if we lose by a single vote we’ll accept it.”
Miami Herald Special Correspondent Andrew Rosati reported from Caracas. Andean Bureau Chief Jim Wyss reported from Bogotá.