RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Venezuela held local elections last weekend, and normally that wouldn't be a big deal. But these were seen as the first real test of new President Nicolas Maduro. The elections come at a time when Venezuela's economy is collapsing and it has one of the world's highest inflation rates. So, the opposition is expected to make political gains - or was. That's not how things turned out though, as John Otis reports.
JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: It was the first national vote since Maduro won the presidency by a slim margin in April, following the death of long-time socialist leader Hugo Chavez. By focusing on economic problems, the opposition hoped to pick up scores of city halls and garner more overall votes than pro-government candidates. Instead, the ruling Socialist Party won the popular vote. It also won two-thirds of the mayoral posts up for grabs. The results could help President Maduro shake off perceptions that he's a weak leader unable to fill Chavez's shoes.
PRESIDENT NICOLAS MADURO: (Spanish spoken)
OTIS: In a speech, he declared with this great victory, the people of Venezuela have declared to the world that the Bolivarian revolution will continue. Opposition candidates were massively outspent and almost invisible on television, since nearly all Venezuelan TV stations are friendly towards the government. Still, the opposition won the capital, Caracas, and other big cities. They also won in Barinas, a long-time government stronghold where Chavez grew up. Some opposition leaders framed the results as a split decision but others were deeply disappointed.
RAMON GUILLERMO AVELEDO: (Spanish spoken)
OTIS: We cannot deny that we are sad, said Ramon Guillermo Aveledo, secretary of the opposition coalition called the MUD, in an interview on Venezuelan television. For much of the year, Venezuela's economy has been in a tailspin. The country's home to the largest oil reserves in the world, but now much of that oil goes to China to pay off loans or is sold at cut-rate prices to Nicaragua and other allies. The government has been printed money to cover budget deficits but that's driving inflation. However, the government seemed to regain its footing shortly before the elections. In speech after speech, President Maduro insisted that inflation and shortages were not due to government mismanagement but price-gouging business owners. He ordered hundreds of stores to slash prices and empty their warehouses. Many Venezuelans were delighted.
DAVID SMILDE: Those kinds of measures put sort of a name and a face on what Maduro called the economic war - and it worked. I mean, not just because people get free stuff or reduced-priced stuff but people felt that Maduro understood the problems that they were confronting.
OTIS: David Smilde is a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America. He says opposition candidates lacked a clear message on how they would fix the economy.
SMILDE: They have this discourse that they're the majority and the government is illegitimate. So, they think if they can just go out and campaign against the government, people are going to vote for them. But it's going to take more than that.
OTIS: Now that the elections are over, government officials are hinting that painful economic reforms may be on the way.
VICE PRESIDENT JORGE ARREAZA: (Spanish spoken)
OTIS: Vice President Jorge Arreaza said the government may consider raising the price of subsidized gasoline, which costs just pennies on the gallon at the pump. Some analysts predict the reforms will be too little too late and that Venezuela is heading for hyper-inflation. But Smilde thinks otherwise.
SMILDE: I think it was Rockefeller that said the best business in the world is a well-run oil business, and the second-best business in the world is a poorly run oil business. And that's the way it is with Venezuela. Even with all the mismanagement, it still has a lot of resources.
OTIS: In other words, Venezuela always seems to muddle through. For NPR News, I'm John Otis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.