President Nicolas Maduro has claimed a landslide victory in closely watched regional elections in Venezuela, based on official results that the opposition immediately rejected.
Maduro’s socialist party won governorships in 17 of the 23 states, with the opposition Democratic Union Roundtable (MUD) coalition taking five and one state still undecided, the National Elections Council announced on Sunday.
“We do not recognise any of the results at this time. We are facing a very serious moment for the country,” said the MUD’s campaign director Gerardo Blyde, who demanded a full audit of the vote.
“We invite the Venezuelan people to fight to change this untrustworthy electoral system,” he said.
Maduro said his government had scored an “emphatic victory” over its rivals, with his socialists still in line to take one further state where the results were still in dispute early Monday.
Maduro and his allies held 20 outgoing governorships.
The results amounted to a crushing blow to the opposition which had characterised the elections as a referendum on Maduro, after months of deadly street protests earlier this year failed to unseat him.
Blyde accused the government of violating the law and imposing “abusive conditions in an unequal, unbalanced electoral process whose results do not reflect reality.”
“Neither the Venezuelan people nor the world will swallow the story that they beat us,” he said.
International powers accuse Maduro of dismantling democracy by taking over state institutions in the wake of an economic collapse caused by a fall in the price of oil, its main source of revenue.
Last week, an International Monetary Fund report said there was no end in sight to the suffering of the Venezuelan people, with food and medicine shortages intensifying a “humanitarian crisis.”
Analysts said the outcome of Sunday’s elections diminished the chances of finding a political solution to the crisis and increased the likelihood of greater conflict.
“The path of political negotiations between the government and the opposition to restore balance collapses spectacularly,” said pollster and political analyst Luis Vicente Leon.
“We are entering a very delicate situation, one that presages more confrontation,” another analyst, Luis Salamanca, told AFP.
An ebullient Maduro told supporters that “Chavismo” — the brand of socialism he inherited from president Hugo Chavez in 2013 — had won the popular vote across the country.
“We have 17 governorships, 54 percent of the votes, 61 percent participation, 75 percent of the governorates, and the country has strengthened,” he said.
“I ask that we celebrate with joy, music, dance, but in peace, with respect to the adversary.”
Opinion surveys had predicted that the opposition would win 11 to 18 state governorships despite alleged government dirty tricks, which included relocating hundreds of polling stations away from areas where it had high support.
“The results are absolutely inconsistent with all the surveys that showed Chavismo in a clear minority,” said Edgard Gutierrez, head of the Venebarometro polling firm.
Sunday’s elections were the first contested by the opposition since the legislative vote in 2015 that gave it a majority in the National Assembly.
Turnout was over 61 percent, with many polling stations remaining open past the official 6:00 pm (2200 GMT) closing time to cope with lines of voters.
The MUD has denounced Maduro’s moves to tighten his grip on power after facing down four months of protests in April to July in which 125 people were killed.
He has formed a Constituent Assembly packed with his own allies and wrested legislative power away from the opposition-dominated National Assembly.
Maduro said he had sent a message to opposition leader Julio Borges: “For the love of God, abide by the transparent results.”
Maduro said that it is up to the all-powerful Constituent Assembly to swear in the incoming governors.
The opposition has insisted that its governors will not be sworn in before the assembly, which it considers illegitimate.
For Maduro, the vote was an opportunity to counter allegations of dictatorship levelled against him at home and abroad after forming the Constituent Assembly.