CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuela's National Electoral Council said candidates for the socialist movement founded by the late President Hugo Chavez won nearly all of the 23 governorships up for grabs in Sunday's regional elections. Opposition leaders disputed the accuracy of the vote count.
Independent pollsters had projected the opposition would ride a wave of discontent over Venezuela's economic calamity and win a majority of the state elections for the first time in nearly two decades of socialist rule.
Tibisay Lucena, the pro-government president of the electoral council, said socialist party candidates won 17 of the 22 races in which the outcomes were considered "irreversible" late Sunday. One race was still undecided.
Lucena said 61 percent of the nation's 18 million voters participated in the elections, far higher than many people had anticipated.
Even before the results were announced, opposition leader Gerardo Blyde said there was reason to question the results. He said the opposition's count would be "very different" from the electoral council's results.
"We have already alerted the international community and we are alerting the country," Blyde said.
The disputed result threatened to heighten an already tense standoff between the government and opposition.
"There is a wide disparity between the poll numbers and the results which show that these elections were not free and fair and don't reflect the will of the people," said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue. "I think that's going to deepen the polarization."
The election comes during one of the most turbulent years in recent Venezuelan history. Four months of anti-government protests that began in April left at least 120 people dead, mostly young men in their 20s and 30s. In August, a new pro-government constitutional assembly was installed with virtually unlimited powers after an election that was boycotted by the opposition and that electoral officials were accused of manipulating by more than 1 million votes.
Throughout Sunday, President Nicolas Maduro and socialist party leaders said the election would be proof that Venezuela remains a democracy and not a dictatorship, as a rising number of foreign leaders have begun to call the embattled nation. Few checks and balances remain on Maduro's rule after the constitutional assembly declared itself superior to all other branches of government and replaced the nation's outspoken chief prosecutor with a socialist ally of the president.
"They've said we are a dictatorship," Maduro said in a televised address to the nation during the day. "No. We are a democratic people, rebellious, and with an egalitarian sensibility."
After results were announced, Maduro said he had "absolute faith" in the count and would ask the constitutional assembly to order an audit of the vote in order to extinguish any cries of fraud.
The regional elections were originally scheduled to take place last December, but the electoral council postponed the vote after polls indicated socialist candidates were widely to lose. The vote was rescheduled for this December, but the constitutional assembly moved it up to October.
Days before the vote, the electoral council announced it was moving more than 200 voting centers, predominantly in opposition strongholds, one of several unusual changes before the election.
The opposition accused the council of trying to suppress turnout among its base — a significant portion of which has grown disillusioned about the possibility of change and lost faith in leaders they perceive as disorganized and divided.
Council officials defended the relocations as a security measure in areas where violent protests took place in July.
Opposition-arranged buses transported voters to the new sites Sunday — some of which were nearly an hour away. Other voters from middle-class neighborhoods were sent to vote in poor communities where crime is high.
Susana Unda, a homemaker who voted for Carlos Ocariz, the opposition's candidate in populous Miranda state surrounding Venezuela's capital, used her truck to transport voters whose polling sites were relocated.
"I was born in a democracy and I want to die in a democracy," she said.
Lucena said earlier Sunday the election was proceeding with the lowest number of reported irregularities that Venezuela had seen in an election, but the independent Venezuelan Electoral Observatory reported several incidents of voter intimidation.
Luis Lander, the group's director, said those incidents included reports of pro-government supporters on motorcycles threatening voters gathered at polling sites. He said the number of voting centers that opened late was also higher than in previous elections.
Socialist candidates had urged Venezuelans to stick with the egalitarian principles installed by Chavez while also promising change.
Sergio Camargo, a private security guard who backed the socialist candidate in Miranda, said he hoped his vote would set Venezuela on the right path.
"I hope that after this vote, the people against the government of President Nicolas Maduro are more sensible and let him govern," he said.
Associated Press writer Fabiola Sanchez reported this story in Caracas and AP writer Christine Armario reported from Bogota, Colombia.