Venezuela’s opposition won control of the National Assembly by a landslide, trouncing the ruling party and altering the balance of power after almost 17 years of socialist rule.
The opposition coalition won at least 99 seats in the incoming 167-seat legislature, electoral authorities announced after midnight Sunday. The ruling socialist party won 46 seats. The 19 remaining races remain up for grabs but if enough are won by the opposition it could give the coalition a two-thirds super-majority needed to strongly challenge President Nicolas Maduro’s grip on power.
The streets of the Venezuelan capital of Caracas broke out in shouts of joy, fireworks and car honks after National Electoral Council President Tibisay Lucena announced the partial results six hours after polls closed.
Within seconds, Maduro recognized the opposition’s win, saying that despite an adverse result Venezuela’s democracy had triumphed. But he recalled the long history of U.S.-supported coups in Latin America in blaming the “circumstantial” loss on a conservative “counter revolution” trying to sabotage the oil-dependent economy and destabilize his rule.
“I can say today that the economic war has triumphed,” Maduro, surrounded by his party’s top leadership, said from the presidential palace.
Opposition leaders meanwhile spoke in strident terms, a prelude to what’s likely to be a period of intense political fighting in a deeply polarized country mired in an economic crisis. Voter turnout was a stunning 74 percent, the highest for a parliamentary vote since compulsory voting ended in the 1990s, as Venezuelans punished Maduro’s government for widespread shortages, a plunging currency and triple-digit inflation that has brought the economy to its knees.
The opposition victory deals a serious setback to the socialist revolution started almost 17 years ago by the late Hugo Chavez, who until his death in 2013 had an almost-magical hold on the political aspirations of Venezuela’s long-excluded masses.
It was also a major blow to Latin America’s left, which gained power in the wake of Chavez’s ascent but more recently has been struggling in the face of a region-wide economic slowdown and voter fatigue in some countries with rampant corruption. Last month, Argentines elected a conservative businessman over the chosen successor of Cristina Fernandez, who was a close ally of Chavez. In Brazil, President Dilma Rousseff is battling impeachment over a corruption scandal in her long-ruling Workers’ Party.
Maduro had repeatedly vowed in recent weeks to take to the streets and defend his mentor Chavez’s legacy if his party lost. But on Sunday night he softened his tone, urging his supporters to regroup from the loss in calm.
“I call on all of our people to recognize in peace these results and re-evaluate many political aspects of the revolution,” he said.
The result marked the opposition’s first major electoral victory since Chavez became president.
Voting was mostly peaceful, though fears of unrest prompted some Venezuelans to line up before dawn so they could cast their ballots and go home to wait for results.
The opposition is likely to use its new-found leverage to pass an amnesty for dozens of opponents jailed during last year’s protests. Some hardliners are vowing to seek a recall referendum to cut short Maduro’s term before it ends in 2019.