By REGINA GARCIA CANO and JUAN PABLO ARRAEZ
BARINAS, Venezuela (AP) — Voters in the home state of Venezuela’s late President Hugo Chávez cast ballots again Sunday in a special gubernatorial election called after the opposition contender in November’s regular contest was retroactively disqualified as he was ahead in the vote count.
The contenders in the northwestern state of Barinas included a local opposition leader, an opposition dissident and a former foreign minister. For the first time in more than two decades, no member of Chávez’s family was on the ballot.
The disqualification of Freddy Superlano by the country’s highest court and the scheduling of the special contest raised further doubts about the fairness of Venezuela’s electoral system following the first vote in years in which most major political parties took part.
The significance of the election was not lost on voters.
“I feel in high spirits to participate again so we can finally move forward from this issue that began on Nov. 21,” voter Luisa Contreras, 70, said before entering a voting center.
Superlano was disqualified Nov. 29 while he was ahead by less than a percentage point over incumbent Argenis Chávez, one of Hugo Chávez’s brothers. The high court, which is one of many government bodies seen as loyal to the government of President Nicolas Maduro, ignored a presidential pardon that had made Superlano and other members of the opposition eligible to run.
Barinas has long been a bastion of Chavismo, with his brother Argenis Chávez, brother Adán Chávez and father Hugo de los Reyes Chávez all serving stints as governor since 1998.
But the pull of the late president, who founded Venezuela’s ruling socialist movement, proved weak on Nov. 21. Residents said afterward that many people in Barinas are angry over long facing serious gasoline shortages, a lack basic services like gas, water and electricity, deficient health care services and hunger from food scarcity.
Argenis Chávez resigned as governor following Superlano’s disqualification and did not enter the race in the special election. The ruling party then chose former foreign minister Jorge Arreaza as its candidate.
“We appreciate all the attention given to this process in Barinas, which is going to be historic,” Arreaza said Sunday. “It is going to be a process that will be a turning point. And that the first thing that is going to characterize it is the participation of the voters of Barinas.”
In addition to Superlano’s disqualification, his wife, who was chosen as his successor, was disqualified. So was her substitute.
Sunday’s ballot also included Sergio Garrido, candidate for the U.S.-backed opposition, and Claudio Fermin, an opposition dissident.
Billboards and other advertisements for Arreaza could be seen across the state, and to a lesser extent those of Fermin’s campaign. But Garrido’s advertising presence was virtually nonexistent.
Garrido, a local leader unknown to most of the country, seemed optimistic that the opposition would come out victorious.
“Together, with all these beloved people, we are going from victory to victory,” he said outside a voting center. “Today, we are going to ratify what happened on November 21 with Freddy Superlano.”
Vote counts for the ruling party have been declining since 2017 across the country. About 6.5 million people voted for pro-government candidates during that year’s regional elections. On Nov. 21, that number dropped to about 3.7 million.
Before dawn Sunday, government leaders and ruling-party supporters gathered in a rally. “Chávez lives, and in Barinas, the homeland continues!” they chanted.
“These elections have a different kind of mood, it looks like they are presidential elections,” voter José Lopez, 56, said while in line before daybreak outside a voting center. “People are happy with the candidate (the government) sent here.”
November’s regional election was monitored by over 130 observers from the European Union, the U.N. and the U.S.-based Carter Center.
A preliminary report from European Union observers concluded Venezuela’s regional contests were held under better conditions than other ballots in recent years but were still marred by “structural deficiencies”, including the disqualification of opposition contenders.
The EU team has not commented on the situation in Barinas, but a report from the Carter Center criticized the court’s intervention.
“There was also a general atmosphere of political repression, and more than 250 people are being held as political prisoners,” the center said. “The tribunal’s recent decision to suspend the tabulation of votes for the governorship of Barinas is another example of its interference in the electoral process.”
Garcia Cano reported from Mexico City.
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