Carlos Ocariz (C), the opposition's candidate for governor for the state of Miranda, Mayor of Caracas' Sucre Municipality, givess a press conference on October 16, 2017 a day after Venezuela held regional elections. Image Credit: AFP

Caracas: The United States on Monday condemned closely watched regional elections in Venezuela as neither free nor fair as European countries also voiced concerns, leaving President Nicolas Maduro increasingly isolated after declaring a landslide win.

Maduro’s opponents cried foul after official results said his socialist party won governorships in 17 of the troubled oil producer’s 23 states in Sunday’s elections, defying opinion polls.

The United States — which has imposed sanctions on Maduro and his inner circle over what it calls Venezuela’s slide into dictatorship — said the lack of outside observers, last-minute changes to polling station locations and other irregularities meant the vote was not credible.

“We condemn the lack of free and fair elections yesterday in Venezuela. The voice of the Venezuelan people was not heard,” said State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert.

The European Union’s chief diplomat, Federica Mogherini, called the results “surprising” and said it was necessary to “find out what really happened.”

France said it was “worried” about the “serious irregularities” reported by the opposition, while Spain renewed talk of proposed EU sanctions.

Political analysts said Venezuela’s punishing political and economic crisis will only deepen, though it is unclear what moves are now open to the opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD).

‘Going to get ugly’

The results amounted to a crushing blow for the MUD, which had characterized the elections as a referendum on Maduro after months of deadly street protests earlier this year failed to unseat him.

The MUD took five states, with one still undecided. But opinion polls had put it ahead in as many as 18 states.

“We’ve asked our candidates to plan to take to the streets in demand of a full recount,” said opposition campaign chief Gerardo Blyde.

“Neither the Venezuelan people nor the world will swallow the story that they beat us.”

But the MUD had no clear strategy to deal with its surprise defeat.

In the weeks leading up to the vote, there had been something of a truce in Venezuela, after months of violent protests that left more than 125 people dead from April to July.

Now the question is what comes next for the troubled country, which is in the grips of a punishing recession marked by food and medicine shortages.

“The path of political negotiations between the government and the opposition to restore balance collapses spectacularly,” said pollster and political analyst Luis Vicente Leon.

“We are entering a very delicate situation, one that presages more confrontation,” another analyst, Luis Salamanca, told AFP.

Whatever is coming, it “won’t be good,” said 47-year-old public employee Atacho Stalin.

“This is going to get ugly. I think we’re in for more protests,” he told AFP.

More sanctions?

International powers accuse Maduro of dismantling democracy by taking over state institutions in the wake of an economic collapse caused by a fall in the price of oil, its main source of revenue.

Maduro and his allies held 20 outgoing governorships, but had been widely expected to lose many more.

An ebullient Maduro told supporters that “Chavismo” — the brand of socialism he inherited from late president Hugo Chavez in 2013 — had won a resounding 54 percent of the vote, with 61 percent turnout.

Allegations of dirty tricks by the government included relocating hundreds of polling stations away from opposition strongholds.

Sunday’s elections were the first contested by the opposition since the legislative vote in 2015 that gave it an overwhelming majority in the National Assembly.

The MUD has denounced Maduro’s moves to tighten his grip on power since then.

He has formed a Constituent Assembly packed with his own allies and wrested legislative power away from the opposition-dominated National Assembly.

The all-powerful Constituent Assembly will swear in the incoming governors on Tuesday. The opposition insisted its governors would not be sworn in before the assembly, which it considers illegitimate.

The United States has slapped sanctions on Maduro and members of his inner circle over the assembly.

Political analyst Diego Moya-Ocampos said more of the same was now in store.

“This will lead to more sanctions, including by the European Union, and greater isolation. (Maduro) will now depend more on China and Russia,” he said.