By Diego Ore
CARACAS (Reuters) - Opposition politician Ricardo Hernandez was elected mayor of Tariba, a small Venezuelan city near the border with Colombia, by a landslide.
But he didn't have long to bask in his victory.
In the days after December 8 municipal elections in which the opposition won 75 mayoralties, Hernandez discovered that the company that collects trash had stopped working - apparently on orders of his predecessor, a member of the ruling Socialist Party (PSUV).
And, the new mayor says, the state government of Tachira, which is controlled by the PSUV, ordered the police in Tariba to hand over its firearms and vehicles to a state force.
Hernandez' case is far from unique.
Across the OPEC nation, new office holders in the 49 mayoralties that passed to the opposition from the PSUV complain about what they say are efforts by President Nicolas Maduro's central government to strip their powers.
The moves have included taking away responsibilities - including the management of parks, theaters and other cultural centers - and removing assets from local authorities.
In some cases, they have prompted critics to accuse ruling party officials of trying to undermine and bypass opposition mayors and governors by setting up "parallel governments."
Hernandez, who won with 62 percent of the votes in Tariba, sees it as punishment for having defeated a PSUV candidate.
"It affects the population and the communities which are using those services," the 37-year-old lawyer said this week during a rare meeting between Maduro and opposition politicians, appealing for an end to interference in his work.
But Jose Vielma, the governor of Tachira state and a PSUV stalwart, denied there was any ill intent.
He said the temporary return of some equipment used by Tariba's police, which had been provided by its owners, the state police force, was arranged with Hernandez's predecessor.
"The weapons, bulletproof vests, patrol vehicles and motorcycles were returned by the (previous) mayor ... so that we can do maintenance and check them," Vielma told local media.
The central government denies it is setting up "parallel" administrations, and says it only steps in when local governments are not addressing urgent needs.
Maduro, 51, narrowly won the election in April to succeed his mentor, Hugo Chavez, who died from cancer the month before. At the municipal polls this month, the PSUV won 242 - or 76 percent - of the country's 337 mayoralties.
Overall, the PSUV and its allies took 10 percentage points more votes than opposition parties, showing the strength of "Chavismo" in rural areas where more mayoral races were up for grabs.
Still, the opposition won 75 mayoralties, which was a big increase on the 51 they held before and included wins in the largest cities, including the capital Caracas and second city Maracaibo.
After the polls, Maduro called opposition mayors and governors to meet him. But many remained skeptical, noting that Chavez had often seemed to offer an olive branch to rivals, then quickly reverting to his usual combative style.
"With this behavior, the government is showing it feels wounded by losing lots of mayoralties," the opposition coalition said in a statement, referring to Maduro's apparent outreach.
ONE CITY, TWO MAYORS?
Five years ago, during Chavez's rule, his candidate lost the mayoralty of metropolitan Caracas to a veteran opposition leader, Antonio Ledezma.
Just months later, Chavez created the new job of head of the government of the Capital District - essentially circumventing the mayor and assuming many of his duties - and he appointed a close ally, Jacqueline Farias, to the position.
Farias took over the office Ledezma had been using, and many of his responsibilities. Schools, firefighters, civil protection and other key functions were all then handled by her.
Just days after Ledezma was re-elected as mayor this month - beating PSUV candidate and former information minister Ernesto Villegas - Maduro's government named Villegas in a different role: Minister for the Transformation of Caracas.
"Give the mayor back his responsibilities and his funding," Ledezma appealed during the meeting with Maduro this week. "This is nothing to do with kindness, it's a question of justice."
The government denies anyone has been usurped. Maduro says Chavez set up state-run organizations in the past that benefited people and were never intended to be "parallel governments" that interfered with the work of elected officials.
Jorge Rodriguez, PSUV mayor of Libertador, one of the five municipalities that comprise the metropolitan district of Caracas, said Ledezma should examine his own performance before criticizing the president.
"If Ledezma focused his time in office on exercising his responsibilities, instead of traveling abroad and bad-mouthing the government, the results in Caracas would not depend solely on the central government," Rodriguez said.
Opposition members say one clear case of what they call a "parallel government" is in Miranda state, which includes large parts of Caracas and where the opposition coalition's two-time presidential candidate, Henrique Capriles, is governor.
Shortly after Capriles was re-elected to that office last year, the central government awarded the PSUV candidate he defeated, Foreign Minister Elias Jaua, a grandiose new title, "The Protector of Miranda."
Jaua was also put in charge of CorpoMiranda, a new state-run organization that runs development projects in the state.
Jaua says the founding of CorpoMiranda was needed, alleging that Capriles is "absent" and neglects his duties as governor by prioritizing his work as national opposition leader.
There is a similar situation in the remote southern state of Amazonas, bordering Brazil, where opposition politician Liborio Guarulla has been governor for 12 years.
First, Guarulla says, his responsibility for operating the local airport was taken away. Next, the state police was removed from his control, and then a radio station and an hotel.
The central government also created a new development body, CorpoAmazonas, and named his defeated election rival to run it.
"It's a miserable battle," Guarulla told Reuters in Amazonas. "They can't stop us (the opposition) from building, so now they are expropriating us, they're robbing us."
(Writing by Daniel Wallis; Editing by Kieran Murray and Doina Chiacu)