Venezuela's opposition won control of the National Assembly by a landslide, delivering a major setback to the ruling party and altering the balance of power after almost 17 years of populist rule.
The opposition coalition won at least 99 seats in the incoming 167-seat legislature, electoral authorities announced after midnight Sunday. The ruling party won just 46 seats. The 19 remaining races remain up for grabs but if enough are won by the opposition it could give the coalition a two-thirds supermajority needed to strongly challenge President Nicolas Maduro's grip on power.
The streets of the Venezuelan capital of Caracas broke out in shouts of joy, fireworks and car honks after National Electoral Council President Tibisay Lucena announced the partial results six hours after polls closed.
Within seconds, Maduro took to the airwaves to recognize the opposition's win, saying that despite an adverse result Venezuela's democracy and constitution had triumphed. But he recalled the long history of coups in Latin America in blaming opponents trying to sabotage the oil-dependent economy and destabilize his rule for what he called a circumstantial loss.
I can say today that the economic war has triumphed, Maduro said in a televised address from the presidential palace surrounded by the socialist party's top leadership.
Opposition leaders meanwhile spoke in strident terms, a prelude to what's likely to be a period of intense political fighting in a country already deeply polarized.
The country wants change and that change is beginning today, Jesus Torrealba, head of the Democratic Unity opposition coalition, told supporters at a hotel in wealthy eastern Caracas.
The opposition victory dealt a serious blow to the socialist revolution started almost 17 years ago by the late Hugo Chavez, who until his death in 2013 had an almost-magical hold on the political aspirations of Venezuela's long-excluded masses.
The result marked the opposition's first major electoral victory since Chavez became president, with Venezuelans tired of rampant crime, routine shortages of basic goods and inflation pushing well into triple digits. The economic crisis has worsened with this year's slump in oil revenue, which funds almost all public spending.
Voting proceeded mostly peacefully through the day, though fears of unrest prompted some Venezuelans to line up before dawn so they could cast their ballots and get off the streets.
Turnout was 74%, well above past parliamentary elections and nearing participation levels normally seen in presidential voting in Venezuela.
Some hardliners are vowing to seek a recall referendum to cut short Maduro's term before it ends in 2019. Their work will be easier if they obtain a two-thirds majority of 112 lawmakers -- still a possibility if enough of the undecided races break the opposition's way.
But reining in Maduro, who became president after Chavez died in 2013, will be tough. Maduro's near-complete grip on other branches of government like the Supreme Court mean he can easily outflank a hostile congress. And some have already floated the idea that outgoing lawmakers can pass a law granting Maduro special decree powers to ride roughshod over the new congress, which won't be sworn in until January.