CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — President Nicolas Maduro's opponents gained a stronger foothold in Venezuela's largest cities in mayoral elections, though they failed to deliver the crushing victory they had sought in hopes of breaking a prolonged political stalemate.
Members of the ruling socialist party won in 196 of 335 municipalities up for grabs, according to preliminary results announced by the National Electoral Council. The opposition took 53 and independent candidate won eight races, while the remaining 78 contests were too close to call.
The opposition, which won 46 municipalities in the 2008 elections, retained control of the country's two biggest cities, Caracas and Maracaibo, and took at least four state capitals currently in the hands of government supporters. Its biggest trophy was Barinas, the hometown of the late President Hugo Chavez and political base of his brother Barinas state Gov. Adan Chavez.
But opposition forces didn't capitalize on discontent with Venezuela's soaring inflation and worsening shortages of basic goods that they hoped would put them on top in the much-watched national total vote. They said such a finish would punish Maduro in his first electoral test since he narrowly defeated opposition leader Henrique Capriles for the presidency in April.
In a triumphant speech late Sunday, the president dedicated his victory to Chavez and promised more measures to protect the poor in the coming days, including a drive to keep food prices low. "The Bolivarian Revolution continues now with more strength," Maduro told hundreds of supporters at a rally in downtown Caracas to celebrate what he called a "grand victory."
Voting took place in relative calm, with only minor disruptions and isolated acts of violence. Turnout of 58 percent was heavy for local elections but trailed the 80 percent that cast ballots in April's presidential election, reflecting fatigue that has set in across Venezuela's political spectrum the past few months.
It was unclear whether the results will reinforce or slow Maduro's recent tilt to the left. As Venezuela's economic troubles have deepened, with inflation touching a two-decade high of 54 percent and shortages of everything from toilet paper to milk spreading, disapproval of Maduro's administration has been rising, especially within the coalition of ideological leftists and members of the military that he inherited from Chavez.
But Maduro managed to regain momentum by going after groups and businesses he accuses of waging an "economic war" against his socialist government. Among the most popular measures was the seizure of dozens of retailers and the slashing of prices on plasma TVs, refrigerators and other appliances.
While the opposition alliance was never expected to challenge the government's dominance in rural areas, until a month ago it was seen as being position to perform better and win the symbolic national vote by a healthy margin. Instead, it got 41 percent of the national tally, slightly behind 44 percent for Maduro's socialist party. The remainder was split among independent parities and dissident factions of Chavismo.
The opposition said it was hurt by a government-led campaign to intimidate media that provide airtime to its events as well as abundant, almost-daily coverage of Maduro inaugurating civil works, handing out homes and announcing raises for state workers.
A visibly exhausted Capriles tried to put his best face forward Sunday night, saying the results show that Venezuela remains deeply divided, "without an owner." "We haven't heard from the government a single word of hope for this people are awaiting solutions," Capriles said at a news conference.
Voting took place one year ago to the day that Chavez returned to Caracas from Cuba, where he was undergoing cancer treatment, to anoint Maduro as his eventual successor. To commemorate the day, Maduro decreed Sunday a national holiday of "loyalty and love" for Chavez, a move the opposition denounced as an electoral ploy.
Associated Press writer Joshua Goodman contributed to this report.