September 27, 2010 / 6:25 AM / in 8 years

UPDATE 9-Election boosts Venezuela's opposition

 * Opposition revels in taking a third of parliament
 * Vote paves way for intriguing 2012 presidential race
 * All eyes now on Hugo Chavez's reaction
 (Adds analyst, details)
 By Frank Jack Daniel and Patricia Rondon
 CARACAS, Sept 27 (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.
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 Full election coverage:                    [ID:nVENEZUELA]
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 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.
 BONDS RISE
 The polls were watched closely by investors with money in
Venezuelan debt, which offers very high yields.
 The benchmark 2027 global bond VENGLB27=RR 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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