CARACAS Hugo Chavez's supporters dedicated their dominant regional election win to the absent Venezuelan president and turned attention back on Monday to his fight to recover from cancer surgery in Cuba.
Helped by sympathy for Chavez, the ruling Socialist Party swept the board in Sunday's vote, winning 20 out of 23 state governorships in the South American OPEC nation.
"That was the people's present for their commander, painting the country red," said the party's national election coordinator Jorge Rodriguez.
Government candidates slashed the opposition's control of seven states to just three - but some good news for the opposition came from Miranda, where its standard-bearer, Henrique Capriles, held on to his seat.
That left Capriles, a 40-year-old career politician and lawyer by training, as the opposition's clear candidate-in-waiting should Chavez have to step down and a new election be called.
Venezuela's highly traded global bonds predictably slipped in price on Monday, given investors' aversion to any good news for Chavez and hopes for a more market-friendly government.
In early trade on Monday, Venezuela's sovereign debt was off 2.2 percent according to JP Morgan's tracker, while the benchmark 2027 bond was down 2.4 pct.
Though celebrating his Miranda win, Capriles acknowledged that the overall national results were bad for the opposition. He accused the government of abusing state resources and exploiting emotions over Chavez's health during the campaign.
"We Venezuelans pray for the president's health, but he is in Cuba and Venezuela's problems need answers," Capriles added, criticizing high crime and jobless rates.
NEW PRESIDENTIAL POLL?
In office since 1999, Chavez is due to start a new term on January 10 after beating Capriles at October's presidential vote.
But he has named a successor, Vice President Nicolas Maduro, in case he is incapacitated, a scenario that would trigger a new poll within 30 days in the nation of 29 million people.
Though past surveys have shown Capriles to be more popular than any other senior officials, Chavez's personal blessing for Maduro could transform the situation by firing up supporters who would view him as a proxy for their leader.
"Should there be a presidential vote soon, there is no doubt Capriles is favorite to represent the opposition, but he has a tough challenge," local pollster Luis Vicente Leon said.
Capriles avoided talk of a new election, but did forecast change after Sunday's victory. "The moment will come, we are close. ... The change is near, you can feel it in the air."
Chavez has not been seen or heard from since before leaving for Cuba to undergo a six-hour operation last Tuesday, his fourth for a cancer that was initially diagnosed in his pelvic region in mid-2011.
Officials say initial complications have been surpassed, and that Chavez is slowly recovering, able to speak and give orders.
Yet they have given few medical details, so speculation is rife that the surgery may have left him in a grave condition and that the cancer could have spread.
Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro, who has been battling health problems himself in recent years, has been at his friend and protege's bedside, presumably at Havana's Cimeq hospital.
Sunday's election illustrated the continuing popularity of Chavez, who is adored by many poor Venezuelans for his humble roots and oil-fueled welfare programs, though denounced as a dangerous autocrat by opponents.
Though many Venezuelans complain loudly about a litany of daily problems, from power cuts and potholes to murder rates and kickbacks, the power of Chavez's personality once again appeared to trump those concerns.
"There was a clear surge in sympathy votes," said Siobhan Morden, New York-based Jefferies & Co.'s managing director, adding that Capriles' win by just four percentage points was not an "ideal" platform for a potential challenge against Maduro.
Half of the ruling Socialist Party's winning candidates on Sunday were former military men, in what the opposition calls a dangerous militarization of Venezuela's civil structures.
Chavez's passionate supporters struggle to contemplate a possible end to his rule, but many say they would simply follow his instructions and vote for Maduro - should it come to that.
"Whether he is here or not, the (revolutionary) process is not going to be stopped," said Caracas resident Alfredo Lopez, discussing politics in the capital's historic Bolivar Square.
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