Venezuela’s ruling Socialist Party has won a majority of votes in the local elections, giving a major boost to President Nicolas Maduro in his quest to preserve the socialist legacy of his late mentor Hugo Chavez, officials said.
With 257 of 337 mayoralties counted nationwide, the ruling party won 44.16 percent of votes, versus 40.56 percent for the opposition, the electoral authority announced.
Turn-out was 59 percent, officials said.
The vote was seen as the biggest political test yet for President Nicolas Maduro, a referendum on his performance amid soaring crime, high inflation and household shortages.
Maduro, the handpicked heir of leftist icon Hugo Chavez, was narrowly elected to office in April, one month after his popular predecessor died of cancer.
Balloting began at 6:00 am on Sunday (1030 GMT) to pick 337 mayors and more than 2,000 city councillors. The opposition, which now controls about 50 municipalities, is vying to double that number.
After casting his vote in the capital Caracas, Maduro called on citizens to “respect” the outcome of the vote as the “decision of the people.”
“What the National Electoral Council (CNE) says will be sacred,” he told reporters.
We need to vote to inflict a defeat on the government because this country is in a hole.
Opposition leader Henrique Capriles, meanwhile, alleged that the vote was marred by irregularities at polling places, including broken machines.
“There are many reports of abuses,” he said after casting his ballot at a Caracas school.
The opposition’s greatest challenge will be to retain control of the country’s biggest cities – especially the Caracas metropolitan area and the oil city of Maracaibo.
“We need to vote to inflict a defeat on the government because this country is in a hole,” said Neida Pernia, a shopkeeper who voted in the affluent Caracas neighborhood of Chacao.
In the capital’s 23rd of January area, voters appeared keen to keep Chavez’s legacy alive.
“We have to win in order to pursue the revolutionary process,” said 34-year-old Lenin Lopez. “Now is not the time to let the opposition gain ground.”
Opponents portray Maduro as a buffoonish autocrat with none of his predecessor’s political savvy, and say his continuation of statist economic policies – including a new crackdown on businesses for alleged price-gouging – are disastrous.
“It’s important to vote though I don’t think it will bring the changes I want,” said graphic designer Antonella Gutierrez, on her way to vote at a primary school in a pro-opposition upscale suburb of Caracas nestled under the Avila mountain.
“I want changes from the presidency down. This government is tearing the country into bits, destroying my Venezuela.”
Though local issues such as roads, street lights and utility services were bound to affect individual mayoral races, both sides in the polarised OPEC nation also see the overall results as a crucial show of their standing at national level.