CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — It's one of the opposition's favorite tropes: that Venezuela's socialist government is a dictatorship that will stop at nothing to stay in power. But when crunch time came, President Nicolas Maduro proved critics wrong in their fear he would commit electoral fraud. He accepted a landslide defeat in legislative elections that he says should remove all doubt about the democratic nature of the "Bolivarian revolution" begun by the late Hugo Chavez.
In the run-up to last month's vote, the U.S. State Department, echoing the views of much of the Venezuelan opposition, had warned about Maduro's efforts to tilt the electoral playing field in the government's favor by jailing or barring the candidacy of prominent opponents, intimidating voters and keeping out most foreign electoral observers. Democratic president front-runner Hillary Clinton was even more emphatic, accusing Maduro of attempting to "rig" the results.
While many of those criticisms still stand, the warnings of fraud at the polls fell flat: The Democratic Unity opposition coalition secured by a single seat a two-thirds supermajority, surpassing its even most-optimistic forecasts.
Maduro quickly recognized the results and appealed to his supporters for calm, although in the days since the defeat he has hardened his stance. Speaking last month to dozens of supporters gathered for a "popular assembly" near the presidential palace, he said he would fight the agenda of the "bourgeois" congress and protect workers from encroaching capitalism.
Opponents say that given the magnitude of the defeat — the opposition even swept the hillside slum where Chavez is buried — the government had no choice. With voters tiring of rampant crime, triple-digit inflation and widespread shortages, polls for months had been forecasting an opposition victory.
Chavez is one of the few revolutionaries to come to power through the ballot box, in 1998, and his movement has consolidated its grip on power through 20 elections since, all the while voter turnout growing. The socialists have had to concede defeat only once before, in 2007, when Chavez narrowly lost a referendum on expanding his powers — though much of what was rejected he later rammed through government-stacked congress and supreme court anyway.