Venezuela’s opposition has dealt an embarrassing blow to Nicolás Maduro’s ruling socialists by winning an election in the state where former president Hugo Chávez was born and nurtured his Bolivarian revolution.
Opposition candidate Sergio Garrido easily won the contest for state governor in Barinas, taking 55.4 per cent in Sunday's ballot to 41.3 per cent for government candidate Jorge Arreaza.
"The whole of Venezuela was watching Barinas. The whole world was watching Barinas and we did it!" Mr Garrido said in a victory speech. "Barinas won! Venezuela won!"
The result means that for the first time in nearly a quarter of a century, Barinas will not be ruled by a Chávez.
Hugo Chávez’s father was state governor for nine years from 1999 before Hugo’s older brother Adán took over, running Barinas for another nine years. From 2017, Argenis Chávez was in charge, ensuring the state remained a family fiefdom.
The one-off election was brought about by a dispute during regional elections in November, when Mr Maduro’s dominant United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) won 19 out of 23 state governorships nationwide to the opposition’s three.
The contest in Barinas, the remaining state, was too close to call, although partial results suggested the opposition had won it.
But then Venezuela's supreme court, which is stuffed with Maduro supporters, said the original opposition candidate, Freddy Superlano, was barred from public office, arguing he faced possible "administrative and criminal proceedings". It ordered a rerun of the Barinas election.
To the opposition, this was proof that Mr Maduro’s socialists would stop at nothing to hold on to Chávez’s emblematic home state.
The opposition turned to Mr Garrido, a 54-year-old local politician, as its candidate. He galvanised forces against Mr Arreaza, a former foreign minister and PSUV grandee.
The result vindicates those within the opposition who argue that they should take part in elections, even if they are skewed towards the PSUV.
Phil Gunson, Venezuela analyst at the International Crisis Group, a think-tank, described Mr Garrido's victory as "a boost to those in the opposition who back a strategy that includes electoral participation".
For years, the opposition has been divided over whether to participate in Venezuelan votes or boycott them.
Venezuela’s US-backed opposition leader, Juan Guaidó, celebrated the “heroic victory”, even though he has regularly advocated abstention and did not participate in the elections in November.
“Where it started, it ends,” he wrote on Twitter, suggesting that, having begun in Barinas in the late 20th century, Venezuela’s socialist experiment was now over. His celebration prompted some mockery on social media, however, from people who pointed out the inconsistency of his position.
Mr Arreaza accepted his defeat, saying the Maduro government would continue to “protect” the people of Barinas.
After losing previous regional elections, the government has often found ways to neuter the winning candidate and hold on to power. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022