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Opposition gains ground in Venezuela elections

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela’s growing opposition and President Hugo Chavez’s left-wing party shared the spoils from weekend elections as they jostled for political momentum in the OPEC nation on Monday.

The multi-party opposition eroded Chavez’s dominance of regional politics, winning six top posts that govern over almost half of the population, although his Socialist Party took a clear majority of state races.

The results make more challenging Chavez’s goal of changing the law to run for reelection in 2012. The opposition defeated that move in a referendum vote last year and gained some extra ground on Sunday.

In power for almost a decade, the popular anti-U.S. president won 17 of 22 states, but the opposition held onto the two states it won at the last regional elections four years ago, picked up three more and won the powerful mayoralty of the capital Caracas.

Opposition candidates were helped by widespread voter complaints the government has done too little to control some of the world’s worst murder rates and Latin America’s highest inflation rate.

The overall mixed results triggered a public relations battle as each side fought to seize the momentum by persuading Venezuelans it was the victor in an election where a high 65 percent of voters cast ballots.

The outcome of the post-election tussle could determine whether Chavez has the backing to realize his reelection goal or follow through on threats to spread his nationalizations program by seizing assets from landowners or food companies.

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Chavez had campaigned frenetically saying his political future was at stake, and he claimed victory on Monday.

“The (revolutionary) flame is stronger today,” he said. “This is a great victory for the party ... and now we will focus on the task of deepening and extending our project.”

Still popular for spending freely on the majority poor, the man who calls former Cuban President Fidel Castro his mentor vowed to press his drive toward socialism despite plummeting income from Venezuela’s main export, oil.

His party said the political map was still painted the red of Chavez’s self-styled revolution and that his allies tallied about 1.5 million more votes overall than the opposition.

But emboldened by its second electoral advance in 12 months, the opposition celebrated that it now governs over Venezuela’s most populous areas in a coastal “electoral corridor” that is often key to winning Venezuelan elections.

The opposition’s wins in major urban centers enhance its visibility and its chances of building credibility that it can meet voters’ demands for better services such as trash collection.

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Leopoldo Lopez, a young star of the opposition who the government blocked from standing with legal technicalities, said the election showed Venezuelan politics had finally shifted after years of Chavez’s dominance.

“The main lesson from the election is that there is a sentiment of plurality among voters that is over and above the government and the opposition,” he said. “We need to build an alternative for a different Venezuela that brings people together in the center.”

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Chavez, whose military formation was in a tank division, has sought to polarize the electorate.

In the campaign that he wanted to turn into a plebiscite on himself, he threatened to jail opposition leader Manuel Rosales, cut funds off to areas won by the opposition and even warned he could deploy tanks if the rich “oligarchs” beat his TV star pick in one state.

Controlling the judiciary, Congress and state companies, he eavesdropped on opponents and aired their conversations on state TV hoping to embarrass them.

Chavez has stripped some powers from elected officials, including authority over the police and hospitals in Caracas, and threatened to create government posts to oversee them.

“This reduces the importance of the gains made by the opposition as it will make it more difficult ... to build on them to mount a serious challenge to the regime down the road,” Goldman Sachs senior economist Alberto Ramos said.

Editing by Kieran Murray