President Nicolas Maduro's government has won the majority of votes in Venezuela's local election, according to early results. The ballot was seen an important test for his embattled Socialist coalition.
With votes from three-quarters of Venezuela's contested mayoral races counted, Maduro's ruling party and allies won in 196 of 335 municipalities, preliminary results announced by the National Electoral Council indicate.
The opposition won in 53, with 78 winners from Sunday's vote yet to be announced.
The result translates to a combined 49.2 percent support for the president's Socialist coalition, compared with the opposition coalition and its partners' 42.7 percent, the election board said.
Nevertheless, the center-right opposition, led by Henrique Capriles, was able to maintain control of two key regions; keeping the principal mayorship of the capital, Caracas, and that of Venezuela's second city, Maracaibo.
The result was seen as an important victory for Maduro's presidency. The handpicked successor to the leftist icon Hugo Chavez has faced a series of economic problems, including slowing growth, the highest inflation in the Americas, and shortages of basic goods including milk and toilet paper, since his narrow election win in April.
Analysts suggest his recent campaign to force businesses to slash prices has proved popular with voters, particularly those less well off, and assisted his candidates in the final campaign push.
Maduro celebrates 'grand victory'
The result will still come as a blow to Capriles, who has long claimed to be leading a majority in Venezuela. The opposition leader, who contested Maduro's April win, had repeatedly called for Sunday's vote to be seen as a referendum on the president's legitimacy.
In a triumphant speech in Caracas on Sunday, Maduro called on the opposition leader to resign, declaring the local vote a "grand victory."
"They underestimate us. They call me a donkey, there is social racism," he said. "They said that today was a plebiscite, that Maduro would have to leave the presidency after today," he told supporters gathered in the city's Bolivar Square.
The president later called on citizens to "respect" the outcome as the "decision of the people."
Capriles meanwhile accused the government of running an unfair campaign, citing election irregularities. Unlike April's vote, however, he is yet to call for the results to be appealed or opposed.
"I had to go round the country practically with a megaphone in my hand ... This campaign saw a brutal waste of Venezuelans' resources [by the government]," Capriles said in a midnight speech.
According to the National Electoral Council an estimated 50 percent of Venezuelan's cast ballots in Sunday's vote.
ccp/kms (AFP, Reuters, AP)