BARINAS, Venezuela (AP) — Voters in the home state of Venezuela’s late President Hugo Chávez on Sunday picked an opposition candidate for governor in a closely watched special election called after the contender representing that faction in November’s regular contest was retroactively disqualified as he was ahead in the vote count.
Sergio Garrido, candidate for the U.S.-backed opposition, defeated former foreign minister Jorge Arreaza, whose campaign drew ruling party heavy hitters in an all-out effort to keep the bastion of Chavismo under their control. The candidates campaigned for roughly five weeks after the country’s highest court disqualified opposition candidate Freddy Superlano and the special contest was scheduled.
“This town of Barinas accepted the challenge democratically, and today, we managed to be the iconic state of all Venezuela,” Garrido said. “… Today, the people of Barinas demonstrated that in unity and with the strength of all of you, they achieved it, they managed to overcome obstacles, we managed to overcome adversity.”
Results published by the National Electoral Council showed Garrido, a local leader unknown to most of the country, with 55.4% of the votes, while Arreaza received 41.3%.
Arreaza conceded defeat on social media even before officials released the results.
“The information we received from our (ruling party) structures indicates that, although we increased in voting, we have not achieved the objective,” he tweeted. “I heartily thank our heroic militancy. We will continue to protect the people of Barinas from all areas.”
Also running was Claudio Fermin, an opposition dissident who received less than 2% of the vote. But for the first time in more than two decades, no member of Chávez’s family was on the ballot in the northwestern state.
Superlano’s disqualification raised further doubts about the fairness of Venezuela’s electoral system following the first vote in years in which most major political parties took part.
The significance of the election is not lost on voters.
“I feel in high spirits to participate again so we can finally move forward from this issue that began on Nov. 21,” voter Luisa Contreras, 70, said before entering a voting center.
Superlano was disqualified Nov. 29 while he was ahead by less than a percentage point over incumbent Argenis Chávez, one of Hugo Chávez’s brothers. The high court, which is one of many government bodies seen as loyal to the government of President Nicolas Maduro, ignored a presidential pardon that had made Superlano and other members of the opposition eligible to run.
Barinas has long been a bastion of Chavismo, with his brother Argenis Chávez, brother Adán Chávez and father Hugo de los Reyes Chávez all serving stints as governor since 1998.
But the pull of the late president, who founded Venezuela’s ruling socialist movement, proved weak on Nov. 21. Residents said afterward that many people in Barinas are angry over long facing serious gasoline shortages, a lack basic services like gas, water and electricity, deficient health care services and hunger from food scarcity.
Argenis Chávez resigned as governor following Superlano’s disqualification and did not enter the race in the special election. The ruling party then chose Arreaza as its candidate.
In addition to Superlano’s disqualification, his wife, who was chosen as his successor, was disqualified. So was her substitute.
Billboards and other advertisements for Arreaza could be seen across the state, and to a lesser extent, those of Fermin’s campaign. But Garrido’s advertising presence was virtually nonexistent.
Vote counts for the ruling party have been declining since 2017 across the country. About 6.5 million people voted for pro-government candidates during that year’s regional elections. On Nov. 21, that number dropped to about 3.7 million.
Before dawn Sunday, government leaders and ruling-party supporters gathered in a rally. “Chávez lives, and in Barinas, the homeland continues!” they chanted.
“These elections have a different kind of mood, it looks like they are presidential elections,” voter José Lopez, 56, said while in line before daybreak outside a voting center. “People are happy with the candidate (the government) sent here.”
November’s regional election was monitored by over 130 observers from the European Union, the U.N. and the U.S.-based Carter Center.
A preliminary report from European Union observers concluded Venezuela’s regional contests were held under better conditions than other ballots in recent years but were still marred by “structural deficiencies”, including the disqualification of opposition contenders.
The EU team has not commented on the situation in Barinas, but a report from the Carter Center criticized the court’s intervention.
“There was also a general atmosphere of political repression, and more than 250 people are being held as political prisoners,” the center said. “The tribunal’s recent decision to suspend the tabulation of votes for the governorship of Barinas is another example of its interference in the electoral process.”