CARACAS (Reuters) - The wives of two opposition mayors jailed over protests against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro won landslide victories in elections on Sunday for their spouses' vacant posts.
Though the women's victories were widely expected in cities that are hotbeds of opposition to Madura, they still brought some cheer to a movement divided over the strategy of protests and smarting from repeated defeats in national elections.
Patricia Ceballos, whose husband Daniel Ceballos was sacked in March and received a 12-month sentence for failing to remove protester' barricades in the streets of San Cristobal, took the mayorship there with 74 percent of votes.
The western city near the border of Colombia was the birthplace of demonstrations that began in early February and quickly spread across Venezuela, causing the OPEC nation's worst unrest in a decade and leading to 42 deaths.
Rosa Scarano, whose husband Vicencio Scarano also lost his job and received a 10-month jail sentence in March for the same offence in central San Diego city, won an even larger 88 percent of votes to take the vacant mayorship there.
Both women represented the opposition Democratic Unity (MUD) coalition against ruling Socialist Party candidates.
"The result of these elections has shown that power and abuse have received a big lesson," the MUD said in a statement.
The socialists still control about 70 percent of Venezuela's 335 local mayorships, however.
Maduro, who seems to have weathered the worst of the protests, said he would recognise the new mayors, but warned he would not tolerate more unrest in their cities.
"If they go crazy and start burning the municipality again, the authorities will act ... and elections will be called every three months until there is peace," he said.
Maduro, a 51-year-old former bus driver who replaced the late Hugo Chavez last year, says this year's wave of protests are a cover for a U.S.-promoted coup attempt against him.
Opponents say that is nonsense, and protests are borne out of Venezuelans' frustration with a repressive government and economic hardships including scarcities of basic products and the highest inflation in the Americas.
At the height of the protests, masked youths faced off daily with security forces. But numbers have dwindled in recent weeks.
Though hardline student activists vow to stay on the streets, the MUD's more moderate leaders believe their best strategy now is to focus on a possible recall referendum to try and oust Maduro constitutionally in 2016.
He won a six-year term last year, which would take him to 2019. The opposition would need nearly 4 million signatures to trigger a recall referendum in two years' time.
(Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)