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Maduro survives 1st major test in Venezuelan local elections

CARACAS--President Nicolas Maduro survived the first major test of his rocky seven month-old presidency Sunday, as the ruling Socialists won a majority of votes in Venezuela's local elections.

The poll, seen as a referendum on Maduro — the handpicked heir of the late leftist icon Hugo Chavez — confirmed the Socialists as the country's top political force of the land, but also showed a deeply divided electorate.

Venezuela's center-right opposition won in five of the country's most populous cities, including Caracas, the oil city of Maracaibo, and Barinas, Chavez's birthplace.

Maduro, 51, was narrowly elected to office in April, one month after his popular predecessor died of cancer. His tenure has been marked by high inflation, a soaring crime rate, and a shortage of household items like toilet paper and milk.

Maduro's Socialists won nearly 50 percent of the overall vote against 43 percent for the opposition, said National Electoral Council (CNE) president Tibisay Lucerna, with nearly all of the polling stations reporting.

“The Venezuelan people have told the world that (Chavez's) Bolivarian Revolution continues with even more force,” Maduro said at an outdoors post-vote rally in Caracas.

The Socialists won office in 196 municipalities and the opposition in 53, according to the CNE. Some results remain undeclared.

The vote results send a “very clear message,” said opposition leader Henrique Capriles at a press conference. “Venezuela is a divided country, it has no owner. We are building an alternative and will not rest until Venezuela is united.”

Capriles alleged that the vote was marred by scores of problems at polling stations, including broken machines.

The approval ratings for Maduro — a former bus driver, leftist stalwart and cabinet minister — were plunging when, in November, the National Assembly granted him power to rule by decree for one year to fight corruption and respond to what he has called an “economic war” unleashed by the opposition with U.S. support.

He quickly rolled out a series of measures to force price cuts, notably on household appliances and cars, and threatened speculators with prison.

Pre-election surveys showed that Venezuela's middle class welcomed this populist show of force from Maduro, a self-styled “avenging president.”

At a time when Venezuela has been experiencing months of record 54-percent inflation and facing shortages of household basics, “a crazy paradox occurs: the one who is benefiting from the crisis is Maduro,” pollster Luis Vicente Leon told AFP.

For political scientist John Magdaleno, the vote shows “significant advances” by the opposition by winning the mayor's office in three large cities that had pro-government mayors.

Their vote numbers also increased compared to the 2008 local elections, Magdaleno said, but were less compared to the April presidential election, which Maduro won by a wafer-thin 1.5 percent.

While Maduro has no room for mistakes, the opposition's challenge is to remain united and have a strong showing in the 2015 midterm elections, said Magdaleno, head of the Polity consulting firm.

While the opposition shows “significant growth,” it has been unable to “punish” Maduro at the ballot box, added Luis Vicente Leon, head of the Datanalis consultancy.

The government showing at the polls however was a letdown for supporters like Luis Lugo, who met with some 300 other loyalists in a Caracas plaza to follow on a giant TV screen the official results as they came in.

The failure of the Socialists to win in four of the five biggest cities was nothing short of “treason,” Lugo sneered.

Despite their overall victory, there were no fireworks or dancing to celebrate as there used to be under Chavez.

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Residents wait in line to enter a polling station to vote in front of a wall painting depicting late president Hugo Chavez during municipal elections in Caracas, Venezuela on Sunday, Dec. 8.


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