CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — María Corina Machado, a former lawmaker and longtime government foe, continued to dominate the primary election held to pick the opposition’s candidate to challenge Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro next year, holding her support above 90% in the latest partial returns announced Monday.
Machado, a strong proponent of free-market economic policies, already declared herself the winner in the early hours of the day after the independent National Primary Commission, which organized the primary, released the first results.
The organizers did not declare Machado the winner, but she was far ahead of the nine other candidates. The commission said Monday afternoon that about 65% of the ballots had been tallied, and Machado had 1,473,105 votes, or nearly 93% of the total. Her closest competitor had just under 70,819 votes, a little over 4%.
The strong turnout by Venezuelans in and outside their homeland showed their strong desire for an alternative to Maduro’s decade-long, crisis-ridden presidency. Those voters defied repression, censorship and the weather to participate in the primary.
Maduro, during his weekly TV show Monday, accused the opposition of inflating results. His comment came after state-owned television sought to present the contest as an “electoral farce” — an assessment far from reality.
Venezuelans gathered at voting centers — set up in schools, homes and businesses volunteered by their owners as well as parks and plazas — and waited in line for hours to be able to vote, even in areas once considered strongholds of the governing United Socialist Party of Venezuela.
They downloaded apps to circumvent internet censorship and helped each other find their voting center. They carried umbrellas, folding stools and coffee to ease the wait and flags to add a patriotic feel to the event.
Organizers did not forecast participation figures, but logistical issues, fuel shortages, government threats and repression led people involved or familiar with the effort to initially estimate turnout of around 1 million. That projection doubled as more and more people arrived at the polls in Venezuela and other countries, including Spain, Mexico and the U.S.
“The projection for overall turnout, both internally and externally, looks like it’s going to be anywhere between 6% and 9% of the register, and that’s pretty big,” said Ryan Berg, director of the Americas Program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. “That’s greater than many people expected.”
The country’s voting rolls include 22 million people, but the number is widely considered outdated.
Holding Venezuela’s first presidential primary since 2012 required the deeply fractured opposition to work together. That was a feat onto itself. But what voters and the opposition saw as a monumental exercise in democracy could still prove futile, if Maduro’s government wishes.
While the administration agreed in principle to let the opposition choose its candidate for the 2024 presidential election, it also has already barred Machado from running for office. Maduro’s government has in the past bent the law, retaliated against opponents and breached agreements as it sees fit.
Machado, speaking early Monday to supporters gathered outside her campaign headquarters in Caracas, sought to assure voters that she will be on the 2024 presidential ballot, while acknowledging that it will not be easy to accomplish it.
“What awaits us is an arduous road, we know it. We are all very clear about the nature of the regime we face, and this primary full of obstacles and challenges proved it,” she said. “(But) the bigger the obstacle they put in front of us, the bigger we get because we are going to overcome all the obstacles.”
State television on Monday falsely accused the opposition’s primary of not having “witnesses.” It also tried to discredit the contest for a lack of electoral “observers,” but it failed to mention that some elections run by the National Electoral Council have also taken place without independent oversight.
The primary’s organizers blamed internet censorship for taking so long in releasing results. Jesús María Casal, head of the National Primary Commission, said early Monday that once vote counting began, organizers detected the “server that functioned as a transmission channel was blocked, preventing us from completing this process as scheduled.”
The London-based internet monitoring firm NetBlocks tweeted metrics showing “a disruption to internet connectivity in #Venezuela with high impact to Caracas.” It added that a state-owned internet service provider claimed “an issue with its energy backup system.”
David Smilde, an expert on Venezuelan politics at Tulane University, said the primary was a “significant achievement” for several reasons, including forcing political leaders and parties within the opposition “to reach out and speak to the people.”
“And it has generated considerable enthusiasm and mobilization in a population that has been skeptical of the opposition leadership of late,” he said.
Machado maintained a somewhat low profile for years but dominated the primary campaign by connecting with the same voters she consistently urged to boycott previous elections.
The presidential election is expected to be scheduled for the second half of 2024. Maduro is looking to extend his presidency until 2030, which would surpass the time that Hugo Chávez, his mentor, governed and established his self-described socialist policies.
Maduro and an opposition faction backed by the U.S. government last week agreed to work together on basic conditions for the presidential contest. That prompted the government to release six political prisoners and the Biden administration to lift key economic sanctions.
When organizers declare Machado the primary’s winner, the focus will shift to Maduro to see if the government reverses its ban on her seeking public office. In June, the government issued an administrative decision prohibiting Machado from running, alleging fraud and tax violations and accusing her of seeking the economic sanctions the U.S. imposed on Venezuela.
The U.S., holding up the threat of renewed sanctions, has given Venezuela until the end of November to establish a process for reinstating all candidates expeditiously.
“I really feel optimistic, let’s put it that way, that some kind of change may happen, which is what is expected, since things have not been going well in the country for a long time,” said Wilner Escorza, a network technician in Caracas who voted for Machado. “So, let’s hope that they really make a change and that the politicians really unite and work for the good of Venezuela.”