By Andrew Cawthorne and Andreina Aponte
CARACAS (Reuters) - In another setback for Venezuela’s dispirited opposition, four of its five state governors broke with their coalition’s official stance on Monday to swear themselves in before a pro-government legislative superbody.
The Democratic Unity coalition went into the Oct. 15 gubernatorial polls as favourites for a big win against President Nicolas Maduro’s candidates because of voter anger at a brutal economic crisis in the OPEC member.
But it ended up taking just five of 23 states.
Initially alleging fraud, the opposition later acknowledged that abstentionism in its ranks played a big part in the defeat, which shed doubt on its ability to beat the ruling socialists in next year’s presidential vote.
After the regional ballot, the coalition said none of its winning candidates would “kneel” before the pro-Maduro Constituent Assembly body, which it has refused to recognise since its establishment in an election in July.
But the newly elected governors for Tachira, Merida, Nuevo Esparta and Anzoategui - all from the Democratic Action party, one of Venezuela’s biggest and oldest - swore themselves in before assembly directors as a prerequisite to taking office.
“This is good news for the country,” Constituent Assembly head Delcy Rodriguez said on state TV after the ceremony.
She chided the one opposition winning candidate, Juan Pablo Guanipa of oil-rich Zulia state, for holding out.
“The laws of the Republic are to be fulfilled and respected, so these actions will have consequences,” she said. Maduro previously warned there may be a new election in any state where the winning candidate does not swear loyalty to the assembly.
OPPOSITION SHAKE-UP IMMINENT?
Guanipa, of the Justice First party, which has taken a more militant line against Maduro than Democratic Action, said he would not legitimize the “fraudulent” Constituent Assembly.
“Zulia will never kneel before the dictatorship,” he added.
Critics see the creation of the Constituent Assembly, which has superseded all powers including the opposition-led congress, as the cementing of dictatorship in Venezuela.
But Maduro said it was the only way to bring peace back after four months of opposition protests this year that led to 125 deaths, thousands of arrests and injuries, and widespread damage to property and infrastructure.
“Violence has been defeated,” said Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza, hailing the swearing in of the four governors.
Democratic Action is one of the biggest parties in the opposition coalition, and its decision on Monday infuriated many opposition supporters who viewed it as a sellout.
The move could presage a complete reformulation, or possible breakup, of the coalition, which consists of more than two dozen parties and has long suffered from infighting.
“We are going to see a new unity. In the worst crises and circumstances, opportunities always crop up,” wrote opposition leader Henrique Capriles, of the Justice First party, hinting at imminent changes.
The coalition’s biggest triumph was a resounding victory at December 2015 legislative elections. But it has been in the doldrums since Maduro survived this year’s protests, and many Venezuelans perceive its leaders as elitist.
Reporting by Andrew Cawthorne and Andreina Aponte; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Peter Cooney