Venezuela’s opposition refused on Monday to recognize a surprise win for the ruling socialists in a weekend regional election, potentially rekindling protests and fresh foreign sanctions on the oil-rich country’s moribund economy.
Venezuela’s pro-government electoral board said President Nicolas Maduro’s candidates took 17 governorships, versus six for the opposition, in Sunday’s poll with turnout of more than 61 percent.
The socialists’ strong showing was unexpected after devastating food shortages and salary-destroying inflation fueled anger at Maduro. Polls had suggested the opposition would easily win a majority, with one survey giving them 44.7 percent of voter intentions against 21.1 percent for the government.
Dismayed opposition leaders decried irregularities, called for street action on Monday and demanded a full audit, but did not immediately offer any evidence of fraud.
“Neither Venezuelans nor the world will swallow this fiction,” said grave-faced opposition election campaign chief Gerardo Blyde.
Dispirited about their chances of removing Maduro through protests or the ballot box, many Venezuelan opposition supporters now hope foreign sanctions will hurt him.
The Trump administration has already imposed sanctions on Venezuelan officials including Maduro and curbed the country’s ability to issue new debt, which has spooked banks and complicated operations at state oil company PDVSA.
The European Union could also take measures against Maduro, a former bus driver and foreign minister narrowly elected to replace the late leader Hugo Chavez in 2013.
At home, however, it remains to be seen whether opposition supporters are willing to take to the streets again after four months of grueling protests this year failed to pressure the government into holding an early presidential election, freeing jailed activists or accepting humanitarian aid.
At least 125 people died, while thousands were injured and arrested, in violence that brought parts of Venezuela to a standstill as hooded youths battled security forces.
Sunday’s disputed result will further crush their hopes that the unpopular Maduro can be removed in next year’s presidential election, possibly worsening disputes over strategy in the perennially divided coalition.
“We’ve lost the country. Rest in peace, Venezuela,” said one female Venezuelan opposition supporter, sobbing in bed.
The electoral setback could further speed a flow of emigrants to Latin America, Spain, and the United States.
Flanked by his wife, soldiers, and red-shirted party members, a buoyant Maduro appeared on state television late on Sunday to celebrate his party’s victory and paint the opposition as sore losers.
“When they lose they cry fraud. When they win they shout ‘Down with Maduro’,” said Maduro, 54, ordering a full audit in what he said was evidence of transparency.
“Maybe we’ll recover those … governorships that we lost,” he added with a laugh.
The opposition pocketed governorships including those of the turbulent Andean states of Merida and Tachira, the oil-producing region of Zulia, and the jungle-and-savannah state of Bolivar.
The government, which previously controlled 20 of the 23 governorships, took states across Venezuela’s languid plains and steamy Caribbean coast.
It won back populous Miranda state, which includes part of capital Caracas, with an up-and-coming star of the Socialist Party, Hector Rodriguez, beating the opposition candidate. It also won in Barinas, Chavez’ home state in Venezuela’s traditional agricultural belt.
“The results are difficult to believe, obviously, given pre-electoral polling that gave the opposition in the range of 15 to 18 governorships, with normal turnout (around 55 percent or above),” said political scientist John Polga-Hecimovich who follows Venezuela.
“For Maduro, the results indicate that he appears willing to resort to any tactic, no matter how heavy-handed, to maintain his hold on power.”
During the canvassing, authorities made liberal use of state resources in socialist candidates’ campaigns, shifted voting centers from opposition areas at the eleventh hour, and pressured state workers to vote.
Still, the government retains support in poorer, rural settings and Venezuela’s disorganized and elite-led opposition has struggled to capitalize on discontent over the economy.
Socialist candidates, invoking the popular Chavez at every rally, urged Venezuelans to vote against the opposition, whom they accuse of plotting a coup under the veneer of peaceful protest.
“I vote because I want peace, not terrorism,” customs official Franquelsi Anciana said, casting a vote for the government candidate in the western city of Maracaibo.