CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela’s opposition trounced the ruling Socialists on Sunday to win the legislature for the first time in 16 years and gain a long-sought platform to challenge President Nicolas Maduro’s rule of the OPEC nation.
The opposition Democratic Unity coalition won 99 seats to the Socialists’ 46 in the 167-national National Assembly, the election board said, with some districts still to be counted.
Fireworks were set off in celebration in pro-opposition districts of Caracas when the results were announced, while government supporters dismantled planned victory parties.
Maduro, 53, quickly acknowledged the defeat, the worst for the ruling “Chavismo” movement since its founder Hugo Chavez took power in 1999.
“We are here, with morals and ethics, to recognize these adverse results,” Maduro said in a speech to the nation, although he blamed his defeat on a campaign by business leaders and other opponents to sabotage the economy.
“The economic war has triumphed today,” Maduro said.
His quick acceptance of the results eased tensions in the volatile nation where the last presidential election in 2013, narrowly won by Maduro, was bitterly disputed and anti-government protests last year led to 43 deaths.
Opposition leaders, who have lost over-and-over since Chavez’s first election victory 17 years ago, were jubilant, even though their victory was mainly thanks to public disgust at Venezuela’s deep economic recession.
“We’re going through the worst crisis in our history,” coalition head Jesus Torrealba said. “Venezuela wanted a change and that change came ... a new majority expressed itself and sent a clear and resounding message.”
Opposition sources predicted that once counting was finalised, they would win as many as 113 seats. That would give them a crucial two-thirds majority needed to shake up institutions such as the courts or election board.
The result could also embolden government foes to seek a recall election against Maduro in 2016 if they garner the nearly 4 million signatures needed to trigger the referendum.
The government’s defeat was another blow to Latin America’s left following last month’s swing to the center-right in Argentina’s presidential election.
The Democratic Unity coalition capitalized on discontent among Venezuela’s 29 million people with the world’s highest inflation and product shortages.
Critics say failed nationalizations, rigid currency controls, and hostility towards the private sector spurred the economic crisis and that it was then exacerbated by a global slump in oil prices. Venezuela depends on crude for 96 percent of its export revenue.
Many Venezuelans blame the economic chaos on Maduro, who lacks the charisma and political skills of Chavez, his mentor and Venezuela’s leader for 14 years before his death from cancer in 2013.
“I used to be a proud Chavista,” said Rodrigo Duran, a 28-year-old security guard who switched allegiance in his vote on Sunday. “But how can I carry on when my salary doesn’t allow me to feed my children? They deceived us.”
Venezuela’s opposition will now have the chance to break the ruling party’s control over the budget and seek amnesty for dozens of jailed activists, including hardline leader Leopoldo Lopez.
“I’m so happy,” said his beaming wife, Lilian Tintori, who has become a prominent campaigner for the opposition.
With inflation believed to be in triple digits, vast lines outside supermarkets owing to shortages of basic goods and an 80 per cent collapse of the currency on the black market, it was the economy that turned Venezuelans away from the government.
Underlining the depth of feeling, videos circulating online seemed to show five prominent socialist politicians - including Chavez’s brother Adan - being booed at voting centers on Sunday, with crowds yelling “the government will fall!” or “thief!”.
“I voted because we want a change in this country. We’re bored of so many queues, food shortages, a minimum wage that doesn’t get us anywhere,” said Cristobal Jesus Medina Chacon, a 27-year-old engineer who arrived at his voting station in the western city of San Cristobal at 4 a.m.
South America’s bloc of left-wing governments, dominant for over a decade, has lost some of its clout this year.
Center-right opposition candidate Mauricio Macri won Argentina’s presidential election last month, ending 12 years of left-wing rule, and Brazil’s leftist President Dilma Rousseff is battling impeachment for alleged corruption.
Glum government supporters followed Maduro’s lead in accepting the results in Venezuela on Sunday.
“That’s democracy,” said Gloria Torres, 54, an administrator who organized prayer vigils for Chavez when he was dying. “We’re Chavistas and the fight continues.”
Additional reporting by Eyanir Chinea, Diego Ore, Brian Ellsworth, Corina Pons and Deisy Buitrago; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Kieran Murray