CARACAS - Venezuela's opposition on Tuesday urged leftist President Nicolas Maduro to stop making excuses for his candidates' defeat in legislative elections, and instead urgently tackle food shortages and free jailed politicians.
The worst economic crisis in the OPEC country's recent history has Venezuelan staples including flour, milk, meat and beans running scarce. Shortages are particularly bad for the poor and beyond capital Caracas, with shoppers lining up for hours under the sun hoping a delivery truck will arrive.
"We urge the government to stop crying and start working," Democratic Unity coalition leader Jesus Torrealba said in a news conference under a sign reading 'Thank you Venezuela, we won!'
The government boosted imports somewhat in the run-up to the election, but overall shipments have tumbled this year due to a recession and low oil prices, with many economists warning the scarcity may worsen over Christmas.
"We're just a few weeks away from a very serious problem in terms of food," Torrealba said.
Anger over shortages propelled the opposition to a long-elusive victory in Sunday's vote for a new National Assembly.
The coalition even swept traditional bastions of "Chavismo," the movement named after founder Hugo Chavez, including the Caracas slums and the ex-president's home state Barinas.
New legislators plan to launch investigations into corruption and pressure the government into publishing economic data such as inflation, which have not been divulged in a year.
But despite an overwhelming mandate for change, there is little the new opposition-controlled legislature will be able to do about unwieldy currency and prices controls which are a major factor in the economic mess.
At the news conference in a swanky Caracas hotel, Torrealba and other leaders from the opposition coalition's roughly two-dozen parties also called for the release of jailed activists including opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez.
'Clear Signal for Maduro'
The opposition says it has clinched 112 seats in the National Assembly, a coveted two-thirds majority which gives it a strong platform to challenge the broadly unpopular Maduro.
But the tally on the National Electoral Council's website, last updated on Monday, shows the opposition won 110 seats and the Socialist Party and allies 55, with two more still to be attributed.
After what was clearly a mid-term punishment vote, Sunday's defeat has not prompted a mea culpa from the government or promises of substantial reform, though Maduro is facing heat from dissenting factions within his own coalition, once united in devotion to Chavez.
A senior government representative who asked not to be named acknowledged that the election result was a clear signal for Maduro, adding that there needs to be profound discussion and change within the government or it will face very serious trouble.
To be sure, Maduro has said the Socialist Party will hold an "extraordinary congress" and established commissions to "evaluate the situation and emerge with concrete proposals," suggesting some soul-searching is in store.
Yet he and his top officials continue to blame an "economic war" for confusing Venezuelans, describe the opposition as a "counter-revolutionary" force, and even warn disenchanted former supporters they will regret their vote.
Maduro says the opposition is a snooty U.S.-backed elite who would snatch government-provided houses and subsidized food away from the poor.
State television, which largely blocks out opposition rallies and press conference, has since Sunday minimized coverage of the election, instead broadcasting Chavez speeches, sports, and features on the government's social projects.
"This government does not understand that it lost, nor the magnitude of what is at stake," opposition activist Maria Corina Machado said.