POLITICS

Jailed opposition leader wins in Venezuelan primary, anti-Chavez movement gains steam

An opposition voter is directed towards his voting area by Bolivarian National Guards officers upon his arrival to a poll station in Caracas, Venezuela, Sunday, May 17, 2015. Venezuelans are voting to select the opposition leaders who will run against the ruling socialist partyâs candidates in upcoming legislative elections thought to be government criticsâ first chance at an electoral victory in years. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

An opposition voter is directed towards his voting area by Bolivarian National Guards officers upon his arrival to a poll station in Caracas, Venezuela, Sunday, May 17, 2015. Venezuelans are voting to select the opposition leaders who will run against the ruling socialist partyâs candidates in upcoming legislative elections thought to be government criticsâ first chance at an electoral victory in years. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

Venezuelans elected this weekend opposition candidates for Congress, and the results were anything but predictable. Many of the winners have been threatened with incarceration or are freshly out of prison or, in at least one instance, still in it.

Overall voters in the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), a coalition of 29 political parties that oppose the country’s ruling Socialist party, seemed to favor the center – Justice First, led by two-times Henrique Capriles, won the most nominations.

The turnout, however, was low. According to the Caracas daily El Universal, MUD’s executive secretary, Jesús Torrealba, reported that 640,000 Venezuelans voted on Sunday – a turnout of just 7 percent.

The general election later this year is the opposition's best chance in years to win a legislative majority. Coalition leaders are counting on the dissatisfaction that sent young people into the streets in 2014 to help them win decisively at the polls and begin the process of mounting a recall against President Nicólas Maduro.

The coalition now holds about a third of the South American country's legislature. Opposition parties have not captured a majority since Maduro's mentor, the late Hugo Chávez won the presidency 16 years ago.

In part the low turnout is a reflection that only 42 of the 167 candidates who will compete later this year against the governing socialist party were up for contention. Most candidates for the general election will be selected in negotiations among leaders of the 29-party coalition.

Torrealba also blamed the National Electoral Council (CNE) for a number of irregularities, including the presence of one group of poll-watchers from an organization that had not been discussed or agreed to by MUD.

“It was a trap,” Torrealba claimed, meant to trigger a walkout. “Instead we told them ‘Welcome, but the mechanism by which you came to be here was a provocation.'”

“These results aren’t thanks to the CNE,” he stated, “but despite it.”

Among the winners on Sunday was Daniel Ceballos, the former mayor of San Cristóbal who is currently in jail.

Ceballos' wife, Patricia, who won her husband's mayoral post in a landslide after his arrest, thanked voters late Sunday for supporting her family.

"We appreciate the courage of the people, who overcame fear, apathy and tyranny to express their hope for a free country," she posted on Twitter.

Ceballos was arrested last year for refusing to help the national government put down a wave of street protests fed in part by anger over crime, inflation and shortages. In a quirk of Venezuelan law, a win in the general election could spring the 31-year-old from military prison because legislators receive immunity from prosecution during their terms.

Another politician who was selected by opposition voters, Enzo Scarano, was recently released from the same prison, where he served time for involvement in the protests.

The governing party will hold its primary elections next month, with twice as many seats up for grabs. Polls show that if the general election were held today, the opposition would clobber the socialist party.

Based on reporting by the Associated Press.

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