* Government candidates paint the nation red in state polls
* Capriles holds his seat, flies flag for opposition
* Attention returns to Chavez's condition in Cuba
By Andrew Cawthorne
CARACAS, Dec 17 Hugo Chavez's supporters
dedicated their sweeping 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
Government candidates cut the opposition's previous control
of seven states to just three - but there was some compensation
for the anti-Chavez bloc in its standard-bearer Henrique
Capriles' retention of Miranda governorship.
That left Capriles, a 40-year-old career politician and
lawyer by training, as the opposition's clear
candidate-in-waiting should Chavez's condition spark a new
Though celebrating his Miranda win, Capriles acknowledged
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
Jan. 10 after beating Capriles in 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 emotional
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.
Chavez has not been seen or heard from since a few days
before last Tuesday's six-hour operation - his fourth for a
cancer initially diagnosed in the pelvic region in mid-2011.
Officials say initial complications have been surpassed, and
Chavez is slowly recovering, able to speak and give orders.
Yet they have given no medical details, so speculation is
rife the surgery may have left him in a grave state and the
cancer may have spread.
Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro, himself battling health
problems for the last six 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-fuelled welfare programs, though denounced as a
dangerous autocrat by opponents.
Though 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," New York-based
Jefferies' managing director Siobhan Morden said, adding that
Capriles' win by just four percentage points was not an "ideal"
platform for a potential challenge against Maduro.
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