In hopes of capturing the National Assembly for the first time in more than a decade, Venezuela’s coalition of opposition parties held primaries Sunday to whittle down and unite the field of candidates.
The alliance of 29 parties said it had counted more than 500,000 voters by Sunday afternoon, or about 2.6 percent of the registered electorate.
Voter turnout was expected to be dampened as only 33 of the 87 voting districts were being contested. Candidates for the other slots were either running unopposed or had the backing of the MUD opposition coalition.
As of late Sunday, the National Electoral Council had not reported the results.
MUD Executive Director Jesús Torrealba blamed state-run media and the local press for ignoring the vote and said it proved the government is nervous about the growing tide of discontent.
“Venezuelans see in the Democratic Union an option for emerging from this crisis,” he said in a statement.
The vote comes as President Nicolás Maduro and the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) have seen their popularity eroded by a tanking economy and rampant crime. Recent polls suggest that the opposition could capitalize on the malaise and make major gains in Congress — and perhaps even control the body for the first time in 16 years.
Opposition legislators currently hold about one-third of the National Assembly.
The government has not set a date for the legislative elections, but they’re expected to come in the final months of the year.
Jorge Rodríguez, a member of the PSUV’s national directorate, questioned Sunday’s vote, saying the majority of the candidates had been picked by the party machinery and not the people.
While there were 109 candidates running Sunday, the PSUV’s primary, scheduled for June 28, will have 10 times that many people jockeying for seats, he said.
“The only primaries are the Chavista primaries,” he told local television. “These other ones are fake; they’re simply a fraud.”
Also over the weekend, Maduro fueled tensions by accusing the opposition of wanting to incite violence.
“We have proof of connections between the principal leaders of the extreme right in Venezuela and Colombia with criminal gangs ,which they pay in drugs and dollars to go out and kill people they’ve selected in order to create chaos in the country,” Maduro said Saturday.
The administration often accuses its opposition foes of being behind coup plots and violence.
Some candidates in Sunday’s vote are in jail on charges related to last year’s nationwide protests, including Daniel Ceballos, the former mayor of the border city of San Cristobal. If the politician wins the National Assembly vote he might just be released due to legislative immunity, the Associated Press reported.