Venezuela: Machado takes big early lead in presidential primary vote | Venezuela

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Early returns in the Venezuelan opposition’s presidential primary gave a big lead to former legislator María Corina Machado, who quickly claimed victory as the candidate to end the decade-long, crisis-ridden presidency of Nicolás Maduro.

The independent National Primary Commission, which organised the primary, said about 93% of the first 601,110 ballots counted went to Machado, who entered the vote as a strong frontrunner. The rest of the votes were scattered among the other nine candidates. There was no indication of how many people had voted, and organisers were expected to release additional results throughout Monday.

“Today, very powerful forces have been unleashed,” Machado told supporters gathered outside her campaign headquarters in the capital, Caracas. “Today, we have shown ourselves what we are capable of doing in the face of all the obstacles, in the face of all the abuses.”

Holding Venezuela’s first presidential primary since 2012 required the deeply fractured opposition to work together. Venezuelans, in turn, showed up at voting centres in and outside of their homeland, enthusiastically lining up for hours despite scorching sun and torrential rain.

What they saw as a monumental exercise in democracy could still prove futile, however. While the administration agreed in principle to let the opposition choose its candidate for the 2024 presidential election, it has already barred Machado from running for office.

People stand with umbrellas in pouring rain.
People queue in pouring rain to vote in the opposition primary elections, in Caracas, Venezuela, on Sunday. Photograph: Rayner Pena/EPA

Hundreds of people gathered at voting centres in neighbourhoods across Caracas even before polls opened. They stayed in line despite a rainstorm that left them soaking. They carried umbrellas, folding stools and coffee to ease the expected waits, and leaned against buildings or stood under marquees to seek shelter.

Caracas resident Stephanie Aguilar, 34, cried while she waited to vote. She described the primary as the only “salvation” for her country, her daughter and son, and the millions of Venezuelans who have emigrated due to the nation’s economic and political turmoil.

“We want a better country, a free country, for my children … who have grown up in this government,” Aguilar, a housewife, said as she wiped tears from her face. “They ask, ‘Mom, can we go out to eat?’ No, there is no money. ‘Mom, can we do this thing?’ No, there is no money. It is unfortunate that a society grows up under those conditions.”

Jesús María Casal, the head of the National Primary Commission, blamed the hours-long delay in issuing election results on internet restrictions.

“Once we began the process of counting the results … we detected that our server that functioned as a transmission channel was blocked, which prevents us from completing this process as scheduled,” he said.

The London-based internet monitoring firm NetBlocks tweeted metrics showing “a disruption to internet connectivity in #Venezuela with high impact to Caracas”. It added that a state-owned internet service provider had claimed “an issue with its energy backup system”.

David Smilde, an expert on Venezuelan politics at Tulane University, said the primary was a significant achievement for several reasons, including forcing political leaders and parties within the opposition “to reach out and speak to the people”.

“And it has generated considerable enthusiasm and mobilisation in a population that has been skeptical of the opposition leadership of late,” he said.

The presidential election is expected to be scheduled for the second half of 2024. Maduro is looking to extend his presidency until 2030, which would surpass the time that Hugo Chávez, his mentor, governed and established his self-described socialist policies.

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