- - Sunday, October 15, 2017

BUENOS AIRES | In a bewildering reversal of expectations, Venezuela’s ruling party claimed it had won Sunday’s nationwide gubernatorial races, which independent pollsters and the opposition had both expected to deliver a sharp rebuke of socialist President Nicolas Maduro.

Leaders of the leaders of the anti-Maduro Democratic Unity (MUD) immediately cried foul, saying they refused to recognize vote tallies by the nominally impartial election authority controlled by Maduro loyalists.

“Neither Venezuela nor the world believe the tale they’ve told us.” MUD campaign chief Gerardo Blyde told reporters late Sunday night. “The entire process needs to be audited.

“We have asked our candidates to take action in the streets to back our complaints. We are at a very grave moment for the republic and the country,” he concluded.

Hours earlier, a confident Venezuelan opposition had pledged to accept the outcome while accusing the National Electoral Council (CNE) of suppressing votes to favor pro-Maduro candidates. While they decried the government’s tactics, MUD leaders had been careful not to cast doubt upon the election.

Opposition leader Julio Borges, president of the disenfranchised National Assembly, had noted on Sunday afternoon that Election Day had gone smoothly except for minor “incidents.”

“People have turned out in droves to vote,” Mr. Borges said. “The incidents were very isolated, not massive.”

Then late Sunday night, the unexpected happened. The CNE said candidates for the ruling socialist party had won a majority of the 23 governors’ offices up for grabs, only three of which are currently led by Maduro foes.

Analysts and surveys had predicted opposition victories in at least 16 — and perhaps as many as 21 .

But Tibisay Lucena, the president of the election council, told reporters that opposition candidates won just five races, with only one result still in doubt.

The opposition had been confident even in the face of irregularities.

Outrage over the council’s last-minute decision to relocate more than 200 polling places may have helped the opposition’s turn-out-the-vote effort, said Ramon Guevara, MUD’s gubernatorial candidate in the western state of Merida and one of five opposition candidates the CNE recognized as victorious.

“People who hadn’t been determined to participate have [now] expressed the decision to go out and vote, no matter where they’ve been sent,” said Mr. Guevara, whose state saw the greatest number of changes — with more than 10 percent of all polling places affected.

To justify the move, the electoral council cited alleged “acts of violence during the election of the National Constituent Assembly,” a controversial, pro-Maduro superbody whose July 30 selection the opposition had boycotted.

Critics said this so-called “crazy mouse” strategy, designed to confuse and intimidate voters, was just one of many ploys to limit a Maduro defeat.

“My polling place for the past 24 years will not be working this time, and I am being sent to a different, small place,” said Yorelis Acosta de Oliveira, a resident of the opposition stronghold of Miranda and a political scientist at the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas.

Voters of her middle-class neighborhood were forced to cast their ballots in “barrios” — the often crime-ridden working-class neighborhoods where Mr. Maduro retains comparatively high levels of support.

“The [CNE] is trying to keep people from voting because we are afraid of the city,” Ms. Acosta said. “I don’t know the area where [we] go to vote. It’s an area that can be dangerous.”

Nevertheless, anecdotal evidence suggested solid turnout, with voters waiting in line for up to four hours — a picture starkly different from the July 30 election, whose legitimacy was called into question by voting machine maker Smartmatic.

“[Today] will definitively unmask what the turnout [really] was in that process,” Mr. Guevara said. “But what’s most important is that in Merida, and in the rest of the country, we have our backers at the polling places.”

National MUD spokesman Freddy Guevara, who is no relation to the gubernatorial candidate, on Saturday had underlined his bloc’s trust in the system.

“We have a system that will indicate to us if any of the machines were tampered with,” Mr. Guevara warned. “Our teams are organized, and we know what we are up against.”

Mr. Maduro’s United Socialists, however, had not shown any open signs of resignation ahead of the vote.

“Throughout the week, the government has dispatched its campaign, with giveaways of bags of food [and] the sale of cheap food,” Ms. Acosta said. “And in the interior, they can [still] subdue — they can buy loyalties in this manner.”

Even so, rural Merida — governed since 2000 by allies of Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chavez — has learned its lesson, said Ramon Guevara, the candidate. And no matter the obstacles, he remains convinced that elections, not force, will mark Venezuela’s way out of the abyss.

“We don’t have the slightest doubt that the opposition will win here [today] in Merida,” he said. “[And] a military coup doesn’t make any sense. For us democrats, the only weapon is the constitutional way, the electoral way.”

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