CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuela’s socialist ruling party claimed sweeping victories Sunday night in the first elections to include the country’s top opposition parties in nearly four years, a low-turnout vote that critics say was rigged from the start.
Political allies of President Nicolás Maduro won 20 out of 23 gubernatorial offices across the country, according to preliminary results from the electoral council. With a turnout of just 41.8 percent, one of the country’s lowest rates in the past two decades, the vote reflected an electorate apathetic toward its leadership options in the crumbling socialist state.
“We have the whole map already, clear and drawn,” Maduro said in a speech early Monday, calling his party “a determining force in the history of this beautiful country called Venezuela.”
The opposition chose to participate in the elections, abandoning a years-long boycott, in the hopes of reviving a disillusioned base and redefining the leadership of the fractured and faltering pro-democracy movement. But it appeared they emerged from the contest as weak as they entered it, facing a ruling party with far greater campaign resources and tight control of the country’s electoral system.
“This process … was about reconnecting with the country, walking the streets of each neighborhood of Caracas and telling the people: WE ARE HERE,” tweeted Tomás Guanipa, who came in third place for mayor in a Caracas municipality won by a pro-government candidate. “But the reality is that the country spoke and spoke loudly, through abstention.”
It remained to be seen whether Venezuela’s electoral system passed a key test of legitimacy under the careful watch of more than 130 European Union observers, the first such mission here in 15 years. The mission plans to release initial findings on Tuesday. But as polls closed Sunday, human rights advocates raised alarm at reports of “irregularities, threats and attacks” in the electoral process.
In Zulia state, at least one person was killed and two wounded after being shot in front of an electoral center in what local media described as an attack by men on motorcycles. In Lara state, two human rights advocates taking a photo of a polling site said they were surrounded, attacked and robbed by about 20 people on motorbikes. Across the country, press freedom advocates recorded at least two dozen cases of journalists denied access to polling sites or forced to delete images from their cameras.
“We’ve seen all of this before,” said Tamara Taraciuk, Americas acting deputy director for Human Rights Watch. “The big difference is that the European Union is there to raise alarms in a timely manner about what is happening on the ground. It could set the stage for truly free and fair elections in the future.”
Major opposition parties in September announced they would participate in Sunday’s polls, ending a boycott of elections conducted by the Maduro government that are widely viewed as fraudulent. The decision to field candidates was divisive from the beginning; opponents include one key leader, Juan Guaidó, who is recognized by the United States and several other countries as Venezuela’s rightful president.
Multiple opposition leaders and ordinary Venezuelans have cooled on Guaidó. But the United States has no plans to withdraw its support, Brian Nichols, U.S. assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs, said last week.
Guaidó did not vote in Sunday’s elections. In a video statement released Friday, he accused the Maduro government of controlling the electoral authority, failing to release political prisoners, limiting media access and making use of public resources for the elections.
“There is no fair game,” he said. “We cannot in any way normalize the dictatorship.”
The electoral council, which consists of three people tied to Maduro’s party and two members of the opposition, promised transparency. According to the council, two of the biggest TV stations in the country are being investigated for allegedly unbalanced coverage. Candidates from both the opposition and the government are under investigation for using state resources for their campaigns.
Maduro is being investigated by the International Criminal Court for alleged crimes against humanity. He told state-run television that the elections will show “the strength of Venezuelan democracy above any conspiracy.”
A senior State Department official said the Maduro government has prevented fair elections by barring candidates from running, subverting opposition parties, harassing and detaining opponents, and restricting opposition access to media. “Taken together, such actions make elections that reflect the popular will impossible,” the official wrote in an email, communicating on the condition of anonymity.
Human rights advocates on Sunday shared reports of “red points,” stations outside polling centers where state employees scan the IDs of voters who receive government benefits. Nelson Freitez, a human rights advocate who was monitoring elections in Lara state on Sunday, said he saw red points at 10 of the 12 polling centers he visited.
“They manage to intimidate those they have registered to remind them that if they do not vote for the government candidates, they will not receive social benefits,” he said.
While Freitez and another advocate, Yonaide Sánchez, were taking a photo of one site, he said, a group of 20 people surrounded their car, shoved them, tried to take their phones, stole Sánchez’s purse and grabbed her hair.
A day earlier, outside the electoral council building in the center of Caracas, a government employee said she was voting only because she was afraid of losing her benefits.
“They force us to vote or they’ll take away our food boxes,” said the woman, who gave only her first name, Sonia. The food box she receives once a month is part of a program initiated by the government years ago to help workers get basic products. “If it wasn’t for that, I wouldn’t be voting,” she said.
The elections come weeks after negotiations in Mexico between the government and opposition were put on hold. The government suspended participation after businessman Alex Saab, a Maduro ally, was extradited to the United States to face money-laundering charges.
In races across Venezuela, divisions in the opposition helped deliver wins for Maduro. In Miranda state, the opposition fielded two competing candidates. At the last minute, candidate Carlos Ocariz attempted to withdraw in favor of David Uzcátegui in an effort to unify the opposition vote. But the electoral council ruled it was too late.
Guanipa, the mayoral candidate in the Caracas municipality of Libertador, said the opposition “has to relaunch itself,” elaborating that it needs to focus less on its international support and more on connecting with Venezuelans.
“We have to return to the clear role that we are the opposition and not the government,” he said.
With a movement so fragmented, political analyst Nicmer Evans said, “the only thing that can come of November 21 is a new opportunity to reorganize the Venezuelan opposition.”
But for Atahualpa Carusí, the vote was about something far more basic: running water.
“If they promise they can solve the water issue, for good, I will give them my vote,” said the 78-year-old street vendor, who wore a Santa Claus hat as he stood by his eyeglasses stand in the center of Caracas on Saturday.
A voter since age 18, Carusí remembers when elections meant progress. This year’s candidates, pro-government and opposition alike, focused campaign messaging on pledges to fix the failing infrastructure that has left most homes in Venezuela without a reliable supply of water. And all Carusí wants is to be able to shower more than once a week. “This is a hell, what we’re living in,” he said.
As voters cast their ballots Sunday, lines seldom formed at El Liceo Andrés Bello, a polling site in Caracas. Longtime friends María Manrique, 83, and Eunice Navarro, 72, said the division in the opposition led them to vote for an independent candidate for the first time in years.
“There is nothing we can do but hope the other is not as bad as the one we have now,” Navarro said.
María Luisa Pérez, a 55-year-old supporter of the socialist government, said she would be open to voting for a different party, but no opposition candidate had given her any confidence. “What has Guaidó done?” she asked.
Ciro León, 43, knew his vote for the opposition might not make much of a difference in a part of Caracas dominated by the Maduro government, in elections he felt were unfair to begin with.
But the father of two, a fish distributor, didn’t know what else to do. The country’s crisis has tested his business and his marriage. His wife, who refused to vote, is desperate to leave Venezuela.
“I don’t want to leave,” León said. “I want a change.”