Voters handed President Nicolás Maduro a tepid vote of support, as preliminary results showed his political allies winning a majority of mayoral seats nationwide.
Since taking the helm after the March death of Hugo Chávez, President Maduro's tenure has been marred by claims of fraud, an ailing economy, an inflation rate of over 54 percent, and chronic shortages of consumer goods. His opponents cast Sunday's municipal elections as a plebiscite on his presidency and attempts to preserve his predecessor's socialist policies.
Partial results showed that the Maduro administration was set to win the majority of mayoral spots, passing the electoral "test" by much more than the razor-thin margin with which Maduro beat opposition foe Henrique Capriles in April. Voters gave the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) and its allies more that 49 percent of the popular vote, compared to 42 percent for the opposition.
"It's symbolic," says Mariela Heny, a homemaker who lined up before sunrise Sunday at a voting center in the upscale neighborhood of Chacao, a bastion of opposition support. "It's a test for the government and a chance for us to show our discontent; things can't continue like this."
Despite curbing opposition advances at the mayoral level, however, some are wary to declare a resounding victory for the Maduro administration, pointing to a looming economic crisis and a still very divided electorate.
"Maduro cleared an important hurdle tonight," says David Smilde, from the Washington Office on Latin America, a nongovernmental organization. "Still, 2014 is going to be a very difficult year for the president."
With 97 percent of the vote counted, Maduro's PSUV party and its allies won 196 of the 335 mayoral seats up for grabs, while the opposition coalition won just 53 seats. As of late Sunday evening 78 contests were still too close to call.
While the electoral map was painted mostly red – the ruling socialist party’s trademark color – as dawn broke, the opposition victories were in urban centers including the principal mayorship of the capital, Caracas; the country's second largest city, Marcaibo; and Barinas, the capital of Mr. Chávez's home state.
“The country does not have an owner,” said Mr. Capriles, after results were announced. “We have a divided country and that we can not be glad about."
Critics blame Venezuela's current economic woes on 14 years of strict controls on businesses, prices, and foreign currency exchange, but the opposition failed to take advantage of widespread frustration over runaway inflation and nagging shortages of consumer staples ranging from sugar and milk to toilet paper. Many observers point to an aggressive economic campaign launched by Maduro last month, which lifted his popularity and that of his party’s candidates ahead of the vote.
Jesús Criollo, a TV cameraman casting his vote for the government ticket at a central Caracas polling station, says that the measures helped galvanize the government's base after many had doubted Maduro's abilities.
"People see he's serious now – that he's coming into his own," Mr. Criollo says.
Edgard Guitérrez, a political consultant in Caracas says that after last night's victory, Maduro will likely double down on his statist policies.
"The model had already been imposed on the country," says Mr. Guitérrez. "The question now is how fast he'll accelerate it and how long it's sustainable."
'Chance for dialogue?'
"Venezuela elected the Bolivarian Revolution once again and with it we will continue to protect the Venezuelan people,” Maduro said in a victory speech late Sunday night. “Next week we will deepen economic actions."
"Mission completed, Supreme Comandante!" he shouted out to his deceased mentor, Chávez.
Despite the PSUV victory, there are concerns that yet another politically polarizing election could signal a challenging road ahead.
"Sadly, I don't think the elections can solve the central problems of the country," says Margarita López Maya, a historian at the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas. "With results increasingly ending up 'half and half,' there is less and less of a chance for dialogue."
"Without it, the country will only continue to spiral into crisis," she says.