CARACAS President Hugo Chavez's party just beat a newly united opposition bloc for the popular vote at a weekend parliamentary election that split the country down the middle, final official results showed on Wednesday.
The National Electoral Council said his ruling Socialist Party took 5.45 million votes or 48.9 percent of ballots cast in Sunday's poll, compared with 5.33 million votes or 47.9 percent for the Democratic Unity umbrella group.
The president has said the presence of a rejuvenated opposition in the 165-seat National Assembly will not hinder his legislative agenda and promised to accelerate his socialist reforms in South America's biggest oil producer.
The focus is now on the next presidential election, when the opposition will hope to win by maintaining their newfound unity, finding a candidate with national appeal, and developing a policy platform that goes beyond simply being anti-Chavez.
The final results gave Chavez's party 97 seats, two short of the three-fifths it would need to grant the former soldier decree powers letting him bypass parliament. Democratic Unity had 65 seats, and smaller parties took the other three.
The opposition is concerned Chavez may now rush through new legislation in the three months before the newly elected members of parliament take their seats on January 5.
The 56-year-old president has enjoyed a virtual carte blanche in the National Assembly since opposition parties boycotted the last parliamentary poll five years ago.
On the political front, Chavez is determined to give more power to local grass-roots groups where loyalty to him is more assured than in parliament. He has also nationalized two dozen banks and brokerages over the last year, and may have his eye on making further inroads into the financial sector.