A center-right candidate appeared headed to victory in Venezuela on Monday in a primary election to choose an opposition candidate to compete in presidential elections next year — a vote that could prove pivotal to the fate of a country that has endured a decade of economic crisis and authoritarian governance.
With about 26 percent of the vote counted by Sunday night, María Corina Machado, a former member of the country’s legislature, had won 93 percent of the vote in a 10-candidate race among parties seeking to challenge the rule of President Nicolás Maduro, according to a commission overseeing the balloting. Her nearest competitor had drawn less than five percent of the vote.
Ms. Machado declared victory in a speech around midnight.
“This is not the end yet, but it is the beginning of the end,” she told supporters at an outdoor rally in Caracas, the capital. “Today we have unleashed a very powerful force. Today we have shown ourselves what we are capable of doing.”
The question now becomes whether the Maduro government will reverse its decision to disqualify Ms. Machado, 56, from running in next year’s race. Analysts say she would pose a significant electoral threat to the president.
Voters across Venezuela braved heavy rains, threats and logistical hurdles to cast ballots, showing up in such large numbers that some polling sites had to stay open past the time they were scheduled to close. After years of watching their democracy erode amid scarcity, hunger, and watching loved ones die of preventable diseases, the day felt extraordinary for many.
The election in this South American nation of roughly 28 million people took place with no official government support. Instead, the vote was organized by civil society, with polling stations in homes, parks and the offices of opposition parties.
About 2.3 million Venezuelans turned out to vote, the election commission said, a fairly high number that could indicate how engaged voters could be in a general election in 2024.
The government’s telecommunications agency shut down an online guide that showed Venezuelans the location of their nearest polling station, and prohibited radio and television stations from covering the vote — a move that was denounced by the country’s journalists union.
But observers on Sunday said the volunteers had been creative in overcoming obstacles.
“What we are seeing in the street is that indeed, in all the cities, there is a massive participation of people,” said Benigno Alarcón, the director of a research center at Andrés Bello Catholic University in Caracas that conducts voter surveys. “People are betting on the election as a way out.”
Mr. Maduro, 60, came to power in 2013, after the death of Hugo Chávez, the founder of the country’s socialist-inspired revolution. Under Mr. Maduro, Venezuela, once among the richest countries in Latin America, has undergone an extraordinary economic collapse, leading to a humanitarian crisis that has seen the exodus of more than seven million people, one-fourth of its population.
But the Maduro government and the opposition signed an agreement last week that was intended to move the country toward free and fair elections, including allowing the opposition to choose a candidate for next year’s presidential contest.
Ms. Machado, who had declared herself the country’s best shot at ousting the socialist-inspired government in charge since 1999, had held a wide lead for months in opinion polls.
“We need someone with convincing ideals like hers,” said Ruth García, 50, a nurse earning the equivalent of $6 a month who voted for Ms. Machado on Sunday. “I trust that María Corina has a plan B to overcome her disqualification. We have to continue with her candidacy.”
At a polling station in a parking lot in Catia, a poor neighborhood in Caracas, voters began lining up at 7 a.m. only to encounter a problem: a group of pro-government civilians was threatening to burn the cars in the parking lot if voting proceeded.
But a woman who lived nearby, Margarita Fuenmayor, offered a solution: She would lend her house as a makeshift voting station.
“My parents died without medical attention in this country,” said Ms. Fuenmayor, 52, as a crowd of voters pushed and shoved to try to enter her home. “I think we need a change.”
All the while the line of voters outside grew. As voters left, they shouted “Sí se puede” or “Yes we can.’’
In another Caracas neighborhood, tables ordered by election volunteers never arrived. Instead the workers set voting boxes on chairs that neighbors had brought out from their houses. Hundreds of people stood in line, holding umbrellas against the rain.
Jesús Abreu, 68, voted and then stayed on as a volunteer. He said he lived on a pension of about $3.70 a month.
“I am here today because we are agonizing in life,’’ he said. “The government is slowly killing us.”
Ms. Machado is a veteran politician nicknamed “the iron lady” because of her adversarial relationship with the governments of Mr. Maduro and Mr. Chávez. She is viewed by some supporters as courageous for staying in Venezuela when many other politicians have fled political persecution.
“Machado is a lightning rod,” said Geoff Ramsey, the senior fellow for Venezuela at the Atlantic Council.
But her hard-line positions and insistence on holding members of the Maduro administration criminally responsible for human rights abuses also could make it less likely that the government would allow her to take power.
“She really is in many ways the most direct, inflexible opponent this government will face,” said Christopher Sabatini, a senior research fellow for Latin America at Chatham House, a research group in London.
Her proposals to open up the free market to stimulate the economy and reduce the role of the state have earned her strong support across social classes.
“I ask you to remember how many people believed that this was impossible and we have overcome all the obstacles, overcome the hurdles and here we are,” Ms. Machado said as she voted Sunday morning in a middle-class Caracas neighborhood.”
“Today is the beginning of a new chapter,” she said.
But it is unclear whether Ms. Machado will be able to participate in the general election.
Mr. Maduro’s government has barred her from running for office for 15 years, claiming that she did not complete her declaration of assets and income when she was a legislator. Those types of disqualifications are a common tactic used by Mr. Maduro to keep strong competitors off the ballot.
If Ms. Machado is allowed to run, some analysts say she would easily beat Mr. Maduro.
Sunday’s vote came amid the most significant softening of relations between Venezuela and the United States in years.
In addition to the agreement involving next year’s presidential election, Mr. Maduro has agreed to accept Venezuelan migrants deported from the United States and has released a handful of political prisoners.
In exchange, the United States has lifted some economic sanctions on Venezuela’s oil industry, a vital source of income for the Maduro government.
But experts are skeptical that Mr. Maduro will willingly cede power, or allow elections to take place if there is a chance he might not win.
His government is being investigated by the International Criminal Court for possible crimes against humanity, and the United States has set a $15 million reward for his arrest to face drug trafficking charges.
The Biden administration has made clear that it expects Venezuela to reinstate barred candidates or face the restoration of sanctions.
If Ms. Machado is not allowed to run in 2024, it is unclear whether she would willingly step aside, or whether the opposition would rally around a single new candidate or split the vote, essentially handing Mr. Maduro the election.
As a result, some analysts worry that Mr. Maduro is playing both the opposition and the U.S. government, and could ultimately end up with everything he seeks: relief from the sanctions, at least some international recognition for his bow toward fair elections and a victory next year that allows him to retain power.
The United States has tried to prevent that by making clear that the sanctions could be reinstated at any time.
“I don’t think the international community is under any illusion that this election is going to be perfectly free and fair,” Mr. Ramsey said.
On Sunday night the country’s attorney general, Tarek William Saab,on social media of a man who appeared to have voted joking about threatening to go after Mr. Maduro’s associates.
His office was investigating the man, Mr. Saab wrote, for threatening “persecution and extermination.”