CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Leaders of Venezuela's opposition are claiming victory ahead of official results in Sunday's crucial legislative elections that could alter the country's balance of power after 17 years of socialist rule.
Hours after polls closed, several opposition leaders took to the Internet to announce that they had won a majority of seats in the National Assembly for the first time since 1998. But with no official results released and the ruling socialist party not commenting, their claims could not be confirmed.
"The results are as we expected. Venezuela won," former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles said on Twitter. "With great humility, serenity and maturity we accept what the people decided."
An opposition victory would be a major setback for the socialist revolution started 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 would also be 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.
President Nicolas 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, though on Sunday, he appeared to soften his tone.
"In Venezuela, peace and democracy must reign," he said after voting in a working-class neighborhood of Caracas. "I've said we'll take the fight to the streets, but maybe I was wrong. We can't go where we've always been."
If confirmed, it would be 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 pro-Chavez salsa songs filled the street.
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.
Electoral authorities extended voting hours for an additional hour amid heavy turnout. Under Venezuelan law, polls must remain open as long as voters are in line waiting to cast ballots. Government opponents faced off with armed soldiers, and later, groups of red-clad government supporters on motorcycles.
A small opposition majority in the new 167-seat National Assembly would create only minor inconveniences for Maduro, such as denying him a budget for foreign travel and having committees scrutinize the executive's record. Some hardliners are also vowing to seek a recall referendum to cut short Maduro's term before it ends in 2019.
But reining in Maduro, who became president after Chavez died in 2013, would require new laws needing at least a three-fifths majority, or 101 seats — two more than now held by the socialists. Maduro's near-complete grip on other branches of government like the Supreme Court mean he can easily outflank a hostile congress.
A source in the anti-government camp who spoke on the condition of anonymity because results were not yet official told The Associated Press the opposition had won around 100 seats.
The opposition, with little cash and little access to broadcast media, has struggled to compete in far-flung rural districts against the government's campaign machine. In 2010, voting nationwide was almost evenly split yet the government ended up seating 33 more lawmakers due to Venezuela's complicated electoral system.
Still, even a small victory would provide an important lift to the frequently outmaneuvered opposition. The socialist party has often touted its unbroken chain of electoral victories to defend itself against allegations that it's undemocratic.
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.