Venezuelan Opposition Energized by Election Wins

President Hugo Chávez accused one gubernatorial winner of taking part in a failed coup against him.
President Hugo Chávez accused one gubernatorial winner of taking part in a failed coup against him. (By Fernando Llano -- Associated Press)
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By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, November 25, 2008

CARACAS, Venezuela, Nov. 24 -- Venezuela's opposition has been energized by Sunday's regional elections, in which its candidates won five states and important urban centers in the country's most economically vital and populous regions. Opposition leaders on Monday characterized the victories as a product of the frustrations urban Venezuelans feel with mounting crime and other social ills.

"I'm convinced that people manifested the desire for change across Venezuela," said Leopoldo López, an opposition politician who campaigned for Antonio Ledezma, elected mayor of greater Caracas.

The government of President Hugo Chávez stressed that most voters supported the president's United Socialist Party in balloting for 22 governorships and more than 320 mayoral posts. The president's allies won 17 states, including Barinas, where Chávez grew up and where one of his brothers, Adán, faced a stiff challenge. Government candidates also turned back dissident politicians who had broken with Chávez.

"Without a doubt, we are on the right path," Adán Chávez said on state television Monday night.

But leading Chávez associates, some from the most radical fringe of the president's movement, lost key races here in the bustling capital and elsewhere as the opposition increased the number of states it controls from two to five. About 40 percent of Venezuela's population lives in the electoral corridor the opposition now controls.

The government candidates who went down in defeat include two longtime Chávez allies, Diosdado Cabello, the incumbent governor here in Miranda state, and Aristóbulo Istúriz, who was running for the mayor's post in greater Caracas. Mario Silva, a television talk show host who specializes in deriding opposition leaders, lost in the industrial state of Carabobo.

The president had vigorously campaigned for his candidates, because an overwhelming victory would have given him more political leverage to reform the constitution and run for office when his term ends in 2013.

Luis Vicente León, a pollster with Datanalisis, said Chávez faces an uphill battle in his effort to remain in office. León said the results also "broke the myth that no one can defeat Chávez among the working classes."

Still, Chávez candidates swept opponents in several states. And in states where they lost, the margins were tighter, said Orlando Gonsalves, a political consultant. "President Chávez still has many of his people out there," he said.

The opposition also remains disunited -- its movement a collection of parties and a mix of old-guard politicians, student activists and young technocrats. There is no one leader, which could make it difficult to mount a lasting challenge against a well-funded government.

In the midst of celebrations, some government foes offered the president an olive branch. Henrique Capriles Radonski, who won the governorship in Miranda, said his government would continue the state social programs begun by Chávez. He also said he wanted to meet and work with Chávez.

On national television Monday night, Chávez was not so sure. He accused Capriles Radonski of participating in a failed coup against him.

"I will evaluate it," Chávez said.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company