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Venezuela municipal elections a test for Chávez heir

CARACAS, Venezuela – Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro faced a big test Sunday as municipal polls, seen as a referendum on his performance amid soaring crime, high inflation and household shortages, closed.

Maduro, the handpicked heir of leftist icon Hugo Chávez, was narrowly elected to office in April, one month after his popular predecessor died of cancer.

Balloting ended at 6 p.m. local time to pick 337 mayors and more than 2,000 city councilors. Preliminary results were expected within three hours.

No major incidents were reported during the voting, which took place at nearly 14,000 polling stations.

Shortly before the end of the 12-hour voting window, the National Electoral Council (CNE) estimated in a tweet that more than 50 percent of Venezuelans had voted, the same proportion seen in recent years.

The opposition, which now controls about 50 municipalities, is vying to double that number.

After casting his ballot in the capital Caracas, Maduro called on citizens to “respect” the outcome of the vote as the “decision of the people.”

“What the National Electoral Council says will be sacred,” he told reporters. “I ask the victors to win with honor and respect of their adversaries and those who lose to accept defeat.”

Opposition leader Henrique Capriles, meanwhile, alleged that the vote was marred by irregularities at polling places, including broken machines.

“There are many reports of abuses,” he said after casting his ballot at a Caracas school.

In several regions, thousands of government supporters formed lines as they waited to cast their votes, while the opposition used social networks to make sure their supporters could get to polling stations.

The opposition’s greatest challenge will be to retain control of the country’s biggest cities – especially the Caracas metropolitan area and the oil city of Maracaibo.

“We need to vote to inflict a defeat on the government because this country is in a hole,” said Neida Pernia, a shopkeeper who voted in the affluent Caracas neighborhood of Chacao. “Insecurity gnaws at us.”

In the capital’s 23rd of January area, voters appeared keen to keep Chávez’s legacy alive.

“We have to win in order to pursue the revolutionary process,” said 34-year-old Lenin López. “Now is not the time to let the opposition gain ground.”

Maduro, a former bus driver, leftist stalwart and Cabinet minister, has tried to present himself as a man of action on the economy. But Venezuela, a country with the world’s largest oil reserves, teeters on the verge of chaos.

In November, the National Assembly granted Maduro’s request for power to rule by decree for one year in order to fight corruption and respond to what he has called an “economic war” unleashed by the opposition with U.S. support.

He immediately rolled out a series of measures to force price cuts, notably on household appliances and cars, and threatened speculators with prison. However, the nation remains torn by economic uncertainty.

Pre-election surveys indicated that Venezuela’s middle class welcomed Maduro’s populist show of force, and seemed less inclined than expected to punish his party at the ballot box.

“Maduro appears to be governing for the first time” since he was elected, pollster Luis Vicente León told AFP. “Now his speeches are accompanied by action, so he is seen as president who, whether you like what he’s doing or not, has taken the bull by the horns.”

At a time when Venezuela has been experiencing months of record 54 percent inflation and is facing shortages on items as basic as toilet paper “a crazy paradox occurs: the one who is benefiting from the crisis is Maduro,” León said.

‘Historic moment’ for the opposition

The main opposition coalition Democratic Unity Table, or MUD, says the elections will be decisive for the country’s future.

Its leader Capriles, who lost to Maduro in April, has called it a “historic moment” that will assess the balance of power after 14 years of “Chavista” rule.

Opposition candidate Antonio Ledezma is expected to be re-elected in Caracas, but the ruling party candidate Miguel Pérez Pirela – a 36-year-old philosopher whose appearances on state television have made him a celebrity – may win in Maracaibo.

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