By Andrew Cawthorne and Andreina Aponte
CARACAS (Reuters) - In another setback for Venezuela's dispirited opposition, four of its five state governors broke with their coalition's official stance on Monday to swear themselves in before a pro-government legislative superbody.
The Democratic Unity coalition went into the Oct. 15 gubernatorial polls as favorites for a big win against President Nicolas Maduro's candidates because of voter anger at a brutal economic crisis in the OPEC member.
But it ended up taking just five of 23 states.
Initially alleging fraud, the opposition later acknowledged that abstentionism in its ranks played a big part in the defeat, which shed doubt on its ability to beat the ruling socialists in next year's presidential vote.
After the regional ballot, the coalition said none of its winning candidates would "kneel" before the pro-Maduro Constituent Assembly body, which it has refused to recognize since its establishment in an election in July.
But the newly elected governors for Tachira, Merida, Nuevo Esparta and Anzoategui - all from the Democratic Action party, one of Venezuela's biggest and oldest - swore themselves in before assembly directors as a prerequisite to taking office.
After presiding over the ceremony, Constituent Assembly head Delcy Rodriguez chided the one winning opposition candidate, Juan Pablo Guanipa of oil-rich Zulia state, who held out.
"These actions will have consequences," she said.
Maduro previously warned there may be a new election in any state where the winner does not swear loyalty to the assembly.
Guanipa, of the Justice First party, which has a militant line against Maduro, said he would not legitimize the "fraudulent" Constituent Assembly whose election the opposition boycotted.
"Zulia will never kneel before the dictatorship," he added.
MADURO: 'TURN THE PAGE'
Critics see the creation of the Constituent Assembly, which has superseded all powers including the opposition-led congress, as the cementing of dictatorship in Venezuela. Major Western and Latin American nations have refused to recognize its legitimacy.
But Maduro said it was the only way to bring peace back after four months of opposition protests this year that led to 125 deaths, thousands of arrests and injuries, and widespread damage to property and infrastructure.
Appearing on state TV late on Monday, Maduro said he had congratulated the four Democratic Action governors by telephone and would meet with them, possibly as soon as Tuesday.
"I've told them: 'Let's turn the page ... and get down to work,'" he said.
Democratic Action is one of the biggest parties in the opposition coalition, and its decision on Monday infuriated many opposition supporters who viewed it as a sellout.
The move could presage a complete reformulation, or possible breakup, of the coalition, which consists of more than two dozen parties and has long suffered from infighting.
"We are going to see a new unity. In the worst crises and circumstances, opportunities always crop up," wrote opposition leader Henrique Capriles, of the Justice First party, hinting at imminent changes.
The coalition's biggest triumph was a resounding victory at December 2015 legislative elections. But it has been in the doldrums since Maduro survived this year's protests, and many Venezuelans perceive its leaders as elitist.
Further pummeling his foes, Maduro named five senior officials as "protectors" for the states won by the opposition, undermining its influence on the ground by granting new funding and parallel responsibilities to government figures there.
(Reporting by Andrew Cawthorne and Andreina Aponte; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Peter Cooney)