Election boosts Venezuela's opposition
CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela's rejuvenated opposition celebrated on Monday after reducing President Hugo Chavez's majority in parliament and set their sights on defeating him at the next presidential election in 2012.
"It's a clear message -- we don't want the government's radical path," one leader, Julio Borges, told Reuters after the Democratic Unity umbrella group won a third of seats and claimed a majority of the popular vote from Sunday's ballot.
"Today, Chavez is in a minority."
With six parliament seats left to be counted, the ruling Socialist Party had 94, and Democratic Unity 62. Other parties had three. The opposition had boycotted the last election in 2005, giving Chavez complete control of parliament.
The result left the government just shy of the 99 seats -- or three-fifths -- it would need for parliament to give special decree powers to Chavez if he wants to ignore the body.
The Socialist Party did retain an overall majority in the 165-seat National Assembly, however, and still has a formidable overall control of the South American OPEC member nation's political structures and oil revenues.
The party fell short of Chavez's aim of keeping at least the two-thirds it needed to pass major laws or make key appointments, such as to the Supreme Court or the election authority, without support from its political rivals.
Democratic Unity said it won 52 percent of all votes cast, but election authorities had not given overall vote figures by Monday afternoon. Losing more than half the vote would be a symbolic blow to Chavez, who is used to big popular support, in the 12th year of his controversial rule.
Yet the wily and charismatic Chavez has plenty of cards up his sleeve to play before the December 2012 presidential vote, not least pouring crude oil revenues into popular social projects and possible ways to sidestep the National Assembly.
"We can have an absolute conviction to push faster the process of change, the revolutionary process," senior Socialist Party official Aristobulo Isturiz told a news conference.
Chavez was due to speak later on Monday.
At least one media tally of partial results showed that despite the opposition's 52 percent claim, it might however have been a neck-and-neck race between them and the Socialists, with smaller parties taking a couple of percent of the total.
In a Twitter message, the president appeared to poke fun at the opposition's claims of a victory. "The paltry minority say they won. Well, keep 'winning' then!" he wrote.
Facing the prospect of negotiating with politicians he views as bourgeois capitalists, Chavez may yet move to curb parliament's influence. He could devolve some powers to community groups loyal to him, or pass legislation before the new parliamentarians take office in January.
The polls were watched closely by investors with money in Venezuelan debt, which offers very high yields.
The benchmark 2027 global bond jumped.
Following years of defeats and missteps, and a boycott of the last parliamentary poll five years ago, opposition leaders will now focus on trying to topple Chavez in 2012.
To achieve that, they will need to find a unity candidate and present a wider policy platform than just opposition to Chavez, who stays Venezuela's single most popular politician.
"This is a huge result for the opposition. They exceeded even their own expectations," David Smilde, a Venezuela expert from the University of Georgia, told Reuters.
A baseball-mad former tank soldier who rose from a poor rural childhood, Chavez first tried to take power in a 1992 coup and has lost only one election since he won the presidency at the ballot box in 1998.
The 56-year-old has since become one of the world's most recognizable politicians, taking the crown from Cuba's Fidel Castro as the leading critic of Washington in Latin America, and nationalizing the assets of foreign oil companies.
Chavez is widely accused of using bullying tactics against his opponents, although he can argue his democratic credentials are burnished by the opposition gains in Sunday's vote.
His approval ratings have been hit by a deep recession, a soaring violent crime rate and electricity shortages.
But they remain in the 40-50 percentage range, which would be the envy of many a president worldwide.
Chavez's ruling party had always been likely to receive a higher percentage of seats than votes, due to changes in electoral districts and voting rules that favored it.
Analysts are unsure whether he might now radicalize his self-styled "revolution," or soften policies to appeal to the many who voted against him.
Moody's ratings agency predicted heightened political tensions. But "we do not expect the government to change its broad economic policy mix of fiscal expansionism, price and foreign exchange controls and heavy state intervention," its analyst Patrick Esteruelas wrote in a note.
(Additional reporting by Andrew Cawthorne, Enrique Andres Pretel, Deisy Buitrago, Eyanir Chinea, Marianna Parraga, Daniel Wallis; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)
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