STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Now let's report on the struggle of the political opposition in Venezuela. For decades now, the opposition has failed to unseat a socialist government. The current President Nicolas Maduro has resorted to repression and elections seen as rigged. But the opposition has self-inflicted problems, muddled messages and disorganization. Here's reporter John Otis.
JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: The latest disaster for the opposition came on Sunday. Polls had predicted a landslide win for its candidates in gubernatorial elections. Instead, President Maduro's ruling Socialist Party won 17 of 23 state houses.
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ANGEL OROPEZA: (Speaking foreign language).
OTIS: At a post-election news conference, opposition leaders complained that the government relocated polling places at the last minute and used armed thugs to intimidate voters. One result, they said, is that opposition candidates on Sunday garnered 2 million fewer votes than they did in congressional elections in 2015. Back then the opposition scored its biggest triumph in two decades by winning control of Congress. But the Maduro government used legal maneuvers to effectively shut down Congress. That bitter experience affected voter turnout on Sunday, says opposition lawmaker Juan Andres Mejia.
JUAN ANDRES MEJIA: I mean, if they want to vote for the opposition, they risk their jobs, they risk their lives. Many people did that in 2015, and nothing happened. So at this point, many, many people said, you know, I'm not going to risk it if nothing's going to really change.
OTIS: Others blame Sunday's result on the mixed message coming from the opposition.
JOSE VIDAL: (Speaking foreign language).
OTIS: These critics include Jose Vidal, who said he was tear-gassed and hit in the legs with shotgun pellets during anti-government protests this year. After putting his life on the line to dislodge what the opposition claims is a dictatorship, he questions its decision to take part in elections as if Venezuela were a normal democracy.
VIDAL: (Speaking foreign language).
OTIS: He says, "we either have a dictatorship or a democracy, but not both. That's what turns people off." Now that the protests have petered out and the elections have been lost, it may seem like nothing is working for the opposition. But Javier Corrales, a Venezuela expert at Amherst College, has a different view.
JAVIER CORRALES: The record is not bad but in fact quite extraordinary, the kind of things that the opposition has managed to do.
OTIS: In a Skype interview, Corrales said the opposition has prevented Maduro from turning Venezuela into a Cuban-style dictatorship. It has forced his government to call elections and has gained the backing of much of the international community.
CORRALES: They have done this because it has played by the rules, has mobilized, has been peaceful. It has acquired enormous respect.
OTIS: Going forward, opposition leaders say they will continue calling for both protests and free elections. Mejia, the lawmaker, points out that this dual strategy worked in Chile. There, the opposition used street pressure as well as a 1988 plebiscite to bring down Augusto Pinochet's military dictatorship.
MEJIA: Chileans were able to overcome the - the crisis that we're having and to install a democracy, which has lasted for now 30 years.
OTIS: But for the time being in Venezuela, the Maduro government remains firmly in place. For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Caracas.
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