CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelans cast ballots in municipal elections Sunday being watched as a gauge of popular support for President Nicolas Maduro, who was counting on a recent crackdown on businesses to prevail in his first electoral test since taking office eight months ago.
The National Electoral Council said it expected to announce results three hours after all polling stations closed. Under Venezuela's electoral law, polling stations had to stay open after their scheduled 6 p.m. closing time if voters were still in line, as commonly occurs.
Voting went off in relative calm, with only minor disruptions and isolated acts of violence, but turnout seemed to be light, at least in the impoverished Petare neighborhood and some other districts of the capital.
The vote for mayors and city councils in this deeply polarized country was bound to be competitive. Maduro defeated opposition leader Henrique Capriles by a razor-thin margin in the election held in April to choose Hugo Chavez's successor following his death from cancer.
Capriles has refused to recognize the results, alleging fraud
Since then, 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 while the black market value of the currency plunges.
Disapproval of Maduro's rule has been rising, especially within the coalition of ideological leftists and members of the military that he inherited from Chavez.
But the 51-year-old former bus driver has managed to regain momentum by going after groups and businesses he accuses of waging economic war against his socialist government. Among the most popular measures: the seizure of dozens of retailers and the slashing of prices on plasma TVs, refrigerators and other appliances.
Local pollster Luis Vicente Leon said the offensive helped boost president's approval rating from 41 percent in September to just over 50 percent, about the same level of support he garnered in the April election.
"These elections are going to ratify what the government is doing against this fictitious inflation," janitor Antonio Doria said as he stood in line to vote at a school in Petare.
While the opposition claimed it's the target of a campaign by Maduro to intimidate media that provide airtime to its events, pro-government candidates were helped by abundant coverage of almost-daily appearances by the president.
It was 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 that fateful day, Maduro decreed Sunday a national holiday of "loyalty and love" for Chavez, a move the opposition denounced as an electoral ploy.
Calling the national electoral council's tally "sacred," Maduro called on all candidates to respect the results and said the government had taken precautions to avoid any disruption of voting.
The opposition is seeking to pick up votes in major cities, where it held three of the top 10 most-populated districts, including the capital of Caracas. It also hoped to score a symbolic victory by taking the majority of the national total. In the last municipal elections in 2008, it won 46 municipalities and 10 others went to dissident factions of Chavismo.
"It's the moment to show bravery, it's the moment to show our courage, our strength," Capriles said Sunday as he urged supporters to vote en masse and overcome what he called "the most abusive campaign" ever by the government to silence the opposition.
Pro-government candidates governed in the remaining 337 districts up for grabs Sunday, many of them rural areas, and they hoped to thwart the opposition's gains by taking control of Maracaibo, the country's second-biggest city.
Barring an unlikely landslide for either side, the nation's political stalemate was likely to continue, raising doubts about whether Maduro will double-down on his current course of price controls and heavy state intervention in the economy or adopt a more pragmatic course as moderate insiders advocated at the start of his government.
"These elections lost a lot of their relevancy in recent weeks," said Dimitris Pantoulas, a Caracas-based political analyst. "Right now it's the economic and social situation that will determine the direction of policy."
Associated Press writers Jorge Rueda and Joshua Goodman contributed to this report.