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Caracas, Venezuela — Venezuela’s National Electoral Council says candidates for the ruling socialist party have won a majority of the 23 governors’ offices up for grabs in Sunday’s regional elections. Opposition leaders are disputing the vote count.

Pro-government electoral council president Tibisay Lucena says opposition candidates won just five of 22 races where the results are considered irreversible.

Projections by independent pollsters had predicted the opposition would win a majority of the governorships for the first time in nearly 20 years of socialist rule.

The election was being watched closely as an indicator of how much support President Nicolas Maduro and the socialist movement founded by his predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez, maintain amid soaring inflation and crippling food and medical shortages that continue to wreak havoc in Venezuelans’ daily lives.

Anti-government candidates were projected in polls to win more than half the races, but the success depended heavily on their ability to motivate disenchanted voters.

Voting got off to a relatively slow start in Miranda, the country’s second most populous state that surrounds the capital. Some polling centers were nearly empty in the morning, but voting appeared to pick up in the afternoon. Some people were still in line waiting to cast ballots after the official closing time. Venezuelan law requires election officials to keep voting centers open until everyone still in line has voted.

Both Venezuela’s opposition and pro-government leaders reported high levels of participation as voting counting got underway.

Socialist party leader Jorge Rodriguez said participation was “much higher” Sunday than during the last regional vote in 2012, when 9.2 million Venezuelans cast ballots.

Opposition leader Ramon Guillermo Aveledo described the election as “a gigantic popular victory of historic proportions.”

The election comes during one of the most turbulent years in recent Venezuelan history. Four months of anti-government protests that began in April left at least 120 people dead. In August, the new pro-government constitutional assembly ruling with virtually unlimited powers was installed after a vote that opposition leaders refused to participate in and that the National Electoral Council was accused of manipulating.

With few checks and balances remaining, a rising number of foreign leaders are calling Venezuela a dictatorship.

In a taped message released Sunday, Maduro urged Venezuelans to vote in what he said would be a demonstration that the nation maintains a “vigorous democracy.”

“They’ve said we are a dictatorship,” Maduro said, walking calmly while holding a cup of coffee. “No. We are a democratic people, rebellious, and with an egalitarian sensibility.”

Opposition leaders scoffed at Maduro’s suggestion the election would be held up as proof that Venezuela remains a vibrant democracy.

“We are fighting to recover our democracy,” said Henrique Capriles, one of the opposition’s most recognizable figures. “Democracy is not just voting.”

Maduro has warned that new governors will have to take a loyalty oath submitting to the authority of the assembly that is re-writing the nation’s constitution. Opposition candidates have vowed not to submit themselves to an assembly they consider illegal.

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