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Dec 7, 2015 12:59 AM

Venezuelan opposition wins legislative voting in landslide

The Associated Press

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) Venezuela's opposition won control of the National Assembly by a landslide, delivering a major setback to 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 just 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 supermajority 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 took to the airwaves to recognize the opposition's win, saying that despite an adverse result Venezuela's democracy and constitution had triumphed. But he recalled the long history of coups in Latin America in blaming opponents trying to sabotage the oil-dependent economy and destabilize his rule for what he called a "circumstantial" loss.

"I can say today that the economic war has triumphed," Maduro said in a televised address from the presidential palace surrounded by the socialist party's top leadership.

Opposition leaders meanwhile spoke in strident terms, a prelude to what's likely to be a period of intense political fighting in a country already deeply polarized.

"The country wants change and that change is beginning today," Jesus Torrealba, head of the Democratic Unity opposition coalition, told supporters at a hotel in wealthy eastern Caracas.

The opposition victory dealt a serious blow 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 low approval ratings and facing impeachment over a corruption scandal in her left-leaning Workers' Party.

Maduro had repeatedly vowed in recent weeks to take to the streets and defend the socialist system build by his mentor Chavez if his party lost. But on Sunday night he softened his tone, urging his supporters to regroup from the loss in calm.

The result marked the opposition's first major electoral victory since Chavez became president, with Venezuelans tired of rampant crime, routine shortages of basic goods and inflation pushing well into triple digits. The economic crisis has worsened with this year's slump in oil revenue, which funds almost all public spending.

Voting proceeded mostly peacefully through the day, though fears of unrest prompted some Venezuelans to line up before dawn so they could cast their ballots and get off the streets.

Alejandro Ramirez spent the day riding around to polling centers with a motorcycle gang to encourage government supporters to vote. "We must never let the right wing win here," he said as his group ringed a voting center in the pro-government stronghold 23 de Enero.

As voting wound down, several ruling party governors were caught on film braving boos and insults as they entered their polling places, including Chavez's brother Adan.

Turnout was 74 percent, well above past parliamentary elections and nearing participation levels normally seen in presidential voting in Venezuela.

Some hardliners are vowing to seek a recall referendum to cut short Maduro's term before it ends in 2019. Their work will be easier if they obtain a two-thirds majority of 112 lawmakers still a possibility if enough of the undecided races break the opposition's way.

But reining in Maduro, who became president after Chavez died in 2013, will be tough. Maduro's near-complete grip on other branches of government like the Supreme Court mean he can easily outflank a hostile congress. And some have already floated the idea that outgoing lawmakers can pass a law granting Maduro special decree powers to ride roughshod over the new congress, which won't be sworn in until January.

Yosmeli Teran is one of the party's former supporters whose abstention this time around is believed to be one of the biggest contributors to the opposition's strength.

Drinking rum at an informal street party, she resisted her neighbors' pleas to vote.

"This is a slum. I know it will never be a safe place. But if it could just be a little less violent. And if it could be a little easier to feed and clothe my son," she said.


Associated Press writers Fabiola Sanchez and Jorge Rueda contributed to this report.


Hannah Dreier is on Twitter: twitter.com/hannahdreier. Her work can be found at bigstory.ap.org/content/hannah-dreier.


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