By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, September 28, 2010; 10:37 AM
Voters in Venezuela stopped President Hugo Chavez from obtaining the two-thirds majority the populist leader said he needed in the National Assembly to effortlessly continue his transformation of Venezuela into a socialist state.
Although the president's allies were able to maintain legislative control in Sunday's elections, the results released Monday show that millions of Venezuelans favor the opposition's central plank of halting the government's drive to consolidate control in Chavez's hands. In 12 years in office, Chavez has accelerated the nationalization of private companies and the seizure of farms, a policy his foes say is crippling Venezuela's oil-based economy.
"Here it is very clear: Venezuela said no to Cuban-style communism; Venezuela said yes to the path of democracy," Maria Corina Machado, a longtime foe of the president, told supporters who elected her to the assembly. "We now have the legitimacy of the citizen vote. We are the representatives of the people."
With most of the votes counted, Chavez's United Socialist Party won at least 96 of the 165 seats in the National Assembly, while his most ardent foes took at least 60. The rest of the votes had either not yet been determined or went to indigenous groups and a small leftist party, Fatherland for All, that had recently broken with the president.
Chavez did not address his followers from the balcony of the presidential palace, as he traditionally does after elections. Instead, he issued a message on his Twitter account Monday, calling the vote "a solid victory, sufficient to continue deepening Bolivarian and democratic socialism."
Opposition leaders called the vote a setback for Chavez, because it means his congressional allies will need to negotiate to approve laws and make vital appointments, including those of Supreme Court judges.
"Clearly, a majority of the country has expressed itself for a change in the National Assembly," Ramon Guillermo Avelado, director of the opposition's coalition of candidates, told Venevision television. "That is a win for all Venezuelans, not just for those who voted for our candidates."
Leaders from the opposition's Democratic Unity Table said that they had won 52 percent of the popular vote. Chavez disputed that assertion, saying his followers eked out more votes. But the National Electoral Council, which is closely allied with the government, had not released the numerical results as of Monday afternoon or the new seat count in the assembly.
Under a recent government alteration of electoral districts, the votes in rural areas where the president is more popular carry far more weight than urban votes in cities such as Caracas or Maracaibo, where the opposition is strong. That would help account for the president's allies taking nearly 100 seats.
Still, the vote was hailed as a victory by an opposition that has turned back Chavez in only one election since he first won office in 1998 - a referendum in 2007 in which the president proposed a rewrite of the constitution that would have greatly increased his powers. If opposition leaders are correct about having won the majority of votes, the results would pose a challenge to Chavez ahead of the 2012 presidential election.
"They lost more than an election, they lost the majority of Venezuelans," Tal Cual, an irreverent Caracas newspaper that opposes Chavez, declared in an editorial.
Analysts said the opposition benefited from widespread concerns over rampant crime, high inflation and a grinding economic recession now in its second year.
Opposition leaders also pounded the government after it was revealed this year that thousands of tons of imported food had been discovered rotting at state-run ports. The scandal was especially damaging to the government because the state takeover of farms, along with stringent currency controls, is blamed for hampering domestic food production and dramatically increasing food imports.
Before the vote, Chavez had told his followers that it was crucial that the opposition be "demolished" and had set the two-thirds majority as the objective. The president has had near-total control of the assembly since 2005, when the opposition boycotted the elections.
On Monday, the government's response to the results was initially muted.
Aristobulo Isturiz, who oversaw the president's campaign in Sunday's elections, told a television interviewer that he had hoped for a two-thirds majority.
"Two-thirds really, really permit structural changes with the least resistance possible, with the least confrontation," said Isturiz, who was among the Socialist Party candidates to win a seat.
But later in the day, flanked by other party stalwarts, Isturiz said the government had the necessary force to push through the president's socialist policies.
Chavez also called for a "strengthening of the revolution" while sharply criticizing his foes, whom he disparages as lackeys of imperialist Washington.
"The squalid ones say they won," he told followers via Twitter. "Well, let them continue 'winning' this way."