Maria Corina Machado
Maria Corina Machado (C) celebrates her victory in an opposition primary in Venezuela on October 22, 2023. AFP

Liberal politician Maria Corina Machado held an overwhelming lead Monday in the opposition's presidential primary contest, but it remained unclear if her candidacy to oppose President Nicolas Maduro in next year's elections will clear a major legal hurdle.

With 65 percent of ballots counted so far, Machado had won 92.6 percent of the votes, according to the commission which organized the election.

But the 56-year-old engineer and opposition figure has been disqualified from any public post for 15 years by Maduro's government, which has charged her with supporting international sanctions against the South American country.

That presents a major obstacle to Machado becoming a unitary opposition candidate against Maduro, who lambasted her victory Monday on his television program.

"We respect this group (of voters) and I call on them: Don't be fooled. Don't let yourselves be led into an adventure of hate," Maduro said.

Machado pledges to end socialism and bring about liberal economic reforms, including the privatization of the state oil firm, Petroleos de Venezuela.

She is a fervent opponent of Chavism, the brand of populist leftist ideology left behind by deceased former president Hugo Chavez and championed by Maduro.

After voting ended, Machado on Sunday night told her supporters: "In 2024 we are going to win in this presidential election... We are going to oust Nicolas Maduro and his regime and we are going to start the reconstruction of our nation."

The United States, which last week eased sanctions on Venezuela following the resumption of dialogue between the government and the opposition, is pushing to have Machado's disqualification lifted.

Her disqualification from political life was extended from an initial 12 months to 15 years last June, just as her campaign began to take off.

The Comptroller's Office, lead by the now head of the National Electoral Council (CNE), Elvis Amoroso, accused her of corruption and promoting sanctions against the country.

"No way," said Diosdado Cabello, a Chavism power broker, speaking of her future.

"There is not a single possibility, but not one, not one, not one, not half, not 0.2, not 0.1 possibility that a person who is disqualified can be enabled to participate in a presidential election."

The primary vote, organized without government help, unfolded in parks, squares, storefronts and people's homes.

Machado's closest rival, Carlos Prosperi, who had criticized alleged irregularities in the process, took 4.5 percent, with the other candidates garnering less than one percent of the vote.

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