CARACAS, Venezuela — A stunning win by the Venezuelan opposition could mark the end of an era for a political experiment launched 16 years ago by Hugo Chávez, who led a socialist-inspired transformation of South America’s oil-exporting giant and spearheaded resistance to Washington across the continent.
While current President Nicolás Maduro remains in power, the strong anti-government vote in Sunday’s congressional elections means he will no longer exercise unfettered control over the National Assembly. The opposition has vowed to free jailed opposition leaders and roll back populist measures such as big subsidies for gasoline in an effort to revive the comatose economy.
The political earthquake comes as residents of South America’s biggest oil-exporter are facing some of the world’s worst inflation and crime rates. Politicians have been warning of a potential “social explosion.”
The opposition won at least a simple majority in the elections: a minimum of 99 seats out of 167, compared with 46 for the ruling party, with 22 still to be called. The remaining votes are crucial. If the opposition clears a two-thirds super-majority, the National Assembly could replace Supreme Court justices, attempt to force Maduro from power before his term ends in 2019 or change the constitution. With a lesser margin, the opposition would have fewer weapons but could still issue no-confidence votes or appoint electoral officials.
The opposition win is a sharp rebuke to a leftist movement that had maintained power by winning repeated elections and that had inspired similar parties that became dominant in Bolivia, Ecuador and Argentina, forming a bloc fiercely critical of the U.S. role in the hemisphere. Just weeks ago, Argentina’s left-wing party also suffered a stinging defeat, losing the presidency to a business-friendly opposition candidate, Mauricio Macri.
The results of Sunday’s elections immediately raised the question of how two sides who approach each other as enemies are going to share power. Many wondered whether Venezuela was veering toward more confrontation or the beginning of some kind of solution to a severe economic crisis caused by mismanagement and low oil prices.
“If the opposition is just fighting for power and talking about liberty all day long and political prisoners, [Venezuelans] are not going to vote for them again,” said David Smilde, a Venezuela expert at the Washington Office on Latin America. “This is a daily drama for people, and they need solutions.”
The election could also lead to a softening in the hostile relations between the United States and Venezuela. Once close allies and trading partners, the countries’ ties disintegrated during Chávez’s 14 years in power, which ended with his death in 2013. Chávez accused the U.S. government of supporting a coup attempt in 2002.
The two countries have not shared ambassadors since 2010.
“Venezuelan voters expressed their overwhelming desire for a change in the direction of their country,” U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry said in a statement Monday. “Dialogue among all parties in Venezuela is necessary to address the social and economic challenges facing the country, and the United States stands ready to support such a dialogue together with others in the international community.”
Venezuela’s divided opposition has struggled for years to compete with “Chavismo,” which had won sympathy in its early years by providing subsidized food, expanded educational opportunities and other social programs to poor and working-class residents. But many people had reached a boiling point with their government because of the dire economic situation.
Citizens’ everyday odysseys in search of eggs, rice, shampoo, diapers and birth control pills infuriated even longtime Chavistas.
“This country is not accustomed to standing for six hours to buy soap,” said William Linares, a 55-year-old retiree who voted for the opposition. “The only thing we ever used to wait for is to get our ID card and the movies. Now we line up to buy condoms.”
Before the vote, experts had predicted there would be a “punishment vote,” and that dynamic was evident on election day, with turnout reaching 74 percent, far higher than pollsters had foreseen.
“The opposition has its momentum, but they have to understand that they won on borrowed votes,” said Edgar Gutiérrez, a political analyst in Caracas.
Bolivian President Evo Morales, a Maduro ally, said Monday that the Venezuelan governing party’s defeat should prompt a “profound reflection” on how to defend such political movements in Latin America.
Opposition supporters had feared the election would be marred by fraud, in part because the Maduro government did not approve a number of international observers. But the vote went off largely without incident.
In Argentina, Macri’s incoming administration said it would not push to force Venezuela from the South American trade bloc, Mercosur, as it had threatened, because Maduro accepted the opposition’s election win.
But in his speech acknowledging the defeat early Monday, Maduro didn’t offer much conciliatory language. He blamed the electoral loss on the triumph of “savage capitalism” and the “economic war” against him.
“We have lost for now,” he said.
Maduro’s opponents have demanded a new economic path. Opposition leader Julio Borges called for rapid reforms in an interview at his coalition’s campaign headquarters Sunday night, after the victory became clear.
“The model that the government brings of expropriation, statism, controls, destruction of internal production, imports — it all failed,” he said. “And what we want is another model.”
The assembly could set the political agenda by passing reforms such as devaluing the currency and reducing subsidies for gasoline, measures that could diminish the size of the thriving black market and ease shortages of basic goods. Borges said another priority for the new assembly would be to free what the opposition describes as dozens of political prisoners, and show Maduro’s government that “it’s no longer the owner of the country.”
“The most important thing [the assembly] can do is control the government. Control the spending. Control the public services. Control the policy,” he said. “It’s out of control right now.”
For residents of Caracas, the prospect of leaving the Chávez era behind seemed hard to fathom, particularly because he’s still everywhere. His face and elaborate signature are plastered on scores of buildings. The ruling party’s red shirts still filled the main boulevards during pre-election rallies.
Some government loyalists, such as Maria Holding, a bakery shop employee, worried that the new legislature would cut funding for public housing and universities. She defended Maduro. “They wouldn’t let him govern,” she said.
Others seemed eager for a fresh start. Gloria Garzon, a 60-year-old homemaker, joked that she now has access to a whole new part of her wardrobe, which she previously didn’t wear to avoid being tagged a government supporter.
“I'm going to dust off all those old red clothes we have stored away in the closet,” she said.
Joseph Poliszuk contributed to this report.