CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Opposition parties in Venezuela won't be bullied out of participating in future elections, a leading anti-government politician said Monday, rejecting threats a day earlier by socialist President Nicolas Maduro.
As the ruling socialists captured a majority of mayoral seats across Venezuela on Sunday, Maduro said that opposition parties would be banned from future elections as punishment for boycotting the races.
But Juan Mejia, a leader of opposition party Voluntad Popular, called the vote an "electoral farce," saying that his party would not be eliminated by a presidential decree.
"This party does not kneel," he said. "This party does not back down and does not give up on its principles."
Three of the four biggest opposition parties refused to take part in Sunday's contests, protesting what they called an electoral system rigged by a "dictator."
The tense exchange stems from Sunday's voting, which marked the last nationwide elections before next year's presidential race, in which Maduro is expected to seek another term despite his steep unpopularity.
At a rally held Sunday in the colonial center of Caracas, Maduro announced that pro-government candidates swept the mayoral offices as hundreds of supporters shouted "Go Home, Donald Trump!"
Communications minister Jorge Rodriguez said Monday that government candidates won 308 of 335 mayor seats.
"The imperialists have tried to set fire to Venezuela to take our riches," Maduro told the crowd. "We've defeated the American imperialists with our votes, our ideas, truths, reason and popular will."
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert condemned Maduro's threat in a tweet as "yet another extreme measure to close the democratic space" in Venezuela and consolidate power in an "authoritarian dictatorship."
"We stand with the Venezuelan people as they seek to restore their democracy," she said.
Julio Borges, president of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, took his case Monday to the Vatican, meeting with Cardinal Pietro Parolin, who is the Vatican's Secretary of State and the former papal nuncio in Caracas.
Borges said on Twitter that the two men talked about opening a humanitarian channel in the country and about ongoing negotiations with Maduro's government.
He also said that Vatican officials, including Pope Francis, are closely watching developments in Venezuela. "We agree that humanitarian cooperation and a free vote are the priorities at this moment," Borges said.
Despite being an oil-rich country, Venezuelans struggles with triple-digit inflation, shortages of food and medicine, and charges that Maduro's government has undermined democracy by imprisoning dissidents and usurping the powers of the National Assembly.
Maduro made his threats against opposition parties after dropping his vote into a cardboard ballot box.
"A party that has not participated today cannot participate anymore," Maduro said in televised comments Sunday. "They will disappear from the political map."
This has been a turbulent year for Venezuela, which holds the world's largest oil reserves but has been battered by low crude prices and a crash in production. The country saw months of protests that left more than 120 dead earlier this year, and it is now facing U.S. economic sanctions as it seeks to refinance a huge international debt.
The struggles have caused the president's approval rating to plunge, although the opposition has been largely unable to capitalize on Maduro's unpopularity.
The mayoral elections follow a crushing defeat of opposition candidates in October's gubernatorial elections, where anti-Maduro candidates won just five of 23 races amid allegations of official vote-buying and other irregularities.
Maduro said the third electoral victory for the ruling party in little more than four months signaled that the socialist "Chavista" revolution begun by the late President Hugo Chavez had defeated opponents who are intent on sowing violence in the country.
In a country of 30 million people, 9 million cast ballots — about half of eligible voters. Maduro's opponents on social media questioned the figures.
John Magdaleno, a Venezuelan political scientist, said recent triumphs may give the government a political edge, but it does not erase the underlying economic and social crisis plaguing the country — and Maduro's low approval ratings.
Soaring inflation and the scarcity of basic products still threatens to ramp up tensions in the coming months, he said.
"Neither the political nor the social tension are calming down," Magdaleno told The Associated Press. "The roots of some of the social unrest, in my opinion, are not going to disappear."