Allies of Venezuela's Chávez Win Big, but Opposition Secures Key Posts

By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, November 24, 2008

CARACAS, Venezuela, Nov. 24 -- Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez's allies won a hefty majority of state governorships in Sunday's elections, but the opposition secured important victories by winning the mayor's seat in greater Caracas and two economically vital states.

"Today, the people of Venezuela have spoken," Chávez said early Monday. "Today's victory is Venezuela's. The democratic path has been ratified."

Alberto Muller Rojas, vice president of Chávez's United Socialist Party, characterized the day's vote as a triumph for the government. "We have won in the majority of cases with a substantial difference," Muller Rojas said at a news conference after the election.

But the National Electoral Council said it was still too close to call the winner in the border state of Tachira and in the northern industrial state of Carabobo. It was also unclear who had won in big cities like Maracaibo or Valencia. The president's allies won two states, Yaracuy and Anzoategui, after the government disqualified two promising opposition candidates vying for governorships in those states.

The election was seen as a test of Chávez's dominance in the oil-rich nation, which has been tested in recent months as rising crime, high inflation and food shortages have shaken faith in the man known to his followers as El Comandante. The president had vigorously campaigned for his candidates, knowing a big win would give him the political leverage to reform the constitution and stay in office past 2013, when his six-year term ends.

Pollsters had said that opposition candidates and dissident politicians who had broken with Chávez could take half a dozen states. But the opposition lost the state of Sucre, and dissident politicians lost in the largely rural states where they ran, including the president's home state of Barinas.

"We've already won 17 governorships," the president said, flanked by supporters. "And until this moment, the opposition has won three governorships."

Opposition groups, though, celebrated wins in populous Caracas, where Henrique Capriles Radonski won the state government and Antonio Ledezma captured one of the biggest prizes, metropolitan Caracas. No one expected the opposition to take many states, but instead to threaten the president's hold in populous, economically diverse regions.

"The most important states are where the most important battles are taking place, and the opposition could win," Pedro Nikken, a director of Electoral Eye, a monitoring group observing the elections, said earlier in the day.

The president lost his first vote last December, when voters narrowly rejected a proposed constitutional reform that would have greatly expanded Chávez's powers, permitting him to run for office indefinitely and appoint allies to regional offices. In the wake of that stinging defeat, the government vowed to win Sunday's elections.

In August, the Supreme Court, which is stacked with the president's supporters, upheld a controversial decision made earlier in the year by the controller general to disqualify five strong opposition candidates, including Leopoldo López, a young, charismatic politician who polls showed would have won the mayor's post in greater Caracas.

Constitutional experts said the disqualifications violated two articles of the constitution and showed the lengths to which Chávez would go to ensure his hold on vital seats of power in Venezuela.

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