Venezuela’s long-battered opposition wins control of congress


Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro on Monday called on followers to “peacefully” accept a dramatic defeat in this weekend’s critical legislative race and vowed to learn from the rare electoral setback.

The opposition coalition won 99 seats in the National Assembly versus the ruling party’s 46, the National Electoral Council announced early Monday. Some 19 deputy slots and three seats reserved for indigenous members were too close to call.

The result is seen as a major blow to the country’s socialist administration, which has controlled all branches of government for more than 15 years.

In a speech before cabinet ministers, Maduro said he was more committed than ever to the “Bolivarian Revolution” first launched by late President Hugo Chávez when he first took office in 1999.

“This isn’t time to cry, it’s time to fight,” Maduro said, “and reinvent ourselves — to recognize our errors and find solutions…It’s time for a rebirth from our difficulties.”

Fireworks went off in eastern Caracas as the results were announced. The head of the coalition, Jesús Torrealba, reassured government sympathizers that the opposition wasn’t going to dismantle social programs or seek revenge.

Venezuela “can rest assured that we’ll know how to manage this victory,” he said. “It’s a victory that belongs to everyone.”

One of the opposition’s stated goals is the release of “political prisoners,” including former presidential candidate Leopoldo López.

As Torrealba spoke, supporters broke out into chants of “Freedom! Freedom!”

Major polls leading into the race gave the opposition coalition, known as the MUD, a healthy advantage, predicting it could capture the 167-seat legislature.

Voting appeared to be strong throughout Caracas, where there has been growing frustration with the faltering economy and rampant crime. The government said more than 74 percent of eligible voters participated.

In the working-class neighborhood of Petare, hundreds waited more than an hour to cast their ballot.

Jessika Moreno, a 37-year-old mother of two, said she had spent eight hours Saturday in grocery store lines waiting to buy food only to come home with rice, beans and mayonnaise.

“I’m happy to stand in this line,” she said, as she waited to vote.

Moreno said she was voting for the opposition because of the economic trouble and what she sees as the collapse of the public education system.

“My kids come home and they barely have any homework, I don’t know how they’ll ever be ready for college,” she said. “The education system here has become very pitiful.”

In the iconic government stronghold of 23 de Enero, just yards from the tomb of late President Hugo Chávez, voting appeared light in the morning and it was missing the carnival-like atmosphere seen in past elections.

Even so, coordinators of the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) said the organization’s get-out-the-vote machine was in high gear. They said that of the some 100 people they had personally committed to bringing to the polls, 95 had already voted before 10 a.m.

On Monday, Maduro blamed the loss on the “economic war” he said was being waged by the opposition.

“The opposition didn’t win in Venezuela,” he said. “A counter-revolution won, it has imposed its war.”

Late Sunday, Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López said the country was “in complete calm” and that only seven people had been detained throughout the day for electoral crimes — a number he called “practically insignificant.”

It was also a relief in a country where the specter of violence had hung over the race.

The vote was seen as a referendum on Maduro, who took office in 2013 after Chávez’s death.

Crashing oil prices have sapped the government’s ability to import food and other basic items, causing sporadic shortages and sometimes massive lines at supermarkets. Draconian price and currency controls have only exacerbated the crisis.

While many voters blame government ineptitude for the problems, the administration has blamed right-wing saboteurs and international plotters.

Carmen Quintero, 53, said she feared that if the opposition won the National, it would slash government social programs that have been the administration’s hallmark.

“We’d lose pensions, scholarships, housing, health, education and sports,” she said. “This country would be on the ground like it was in the 1980s.”

The country has had 20 elections in the last 17 years — all of them won by the administration except a referendum for constitutional reforms pushed by Chávez in 2007.

Shortly after casting his ballot, ruling party candidate Freddy Bernal said he was confident of another chavista victory.

“This country is not going to retreat or jump into the void despite all the problems we’ve faced,” he said. “I have no doubt about that.”

Miranda Gov. Henrique Capriles, who narrowly lost against Maduro in a disputed 2013 presidential race, said the administration was worried about Sunday’s results.

“They are a corrupt elite who know they’re going to lose their benefits,” he said. “It’s a government that has ruined this country.”

In the days leading up to the race, the opposition had accused the administration of abusing its incumbency to hog the airwaves and undermine opposition candidates.

Sunday, former Bolivian President Jorge Quiroga said those abuses continued and accused state-run media of making the opposition “invisible.”

Hours before the CNE extended the voting deadline, he warned against the move.

“In democracy, there are rules and you can only extend voting when there’s a line [of voters], not just because,” he said.

The National Electoral Council said the statements crossed a line and canceled his credential as an observer.

Quiroga is one of several former Latin American presidents in Caracas at the invitation of the opposition coalition. National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello went further, calling Quiroga a “clown” who should be expelled from the country.

Throughout the campaign, Maduro often talked about “ruling from the street” if the election didn’t go his way. But in the days leading up to the race, he’s been more conciliatory.

On Monday, he said the administration had an ethical and moral responsibility to accept the defeat.

He added that Venezuela’s “constitution and our democracy have triumphed.”