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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, jostling for political advantage in the OPEC nation on Monday.

Venezuelan President and leader of United Socialist Party (PSUV) speaks to the media in Caracas November 24, 2008. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

The multi-party opposition eroded Chavez’s dominance of regional politics, winning six top posts that govern almost half of the population, although his Socialist Party took a 17 state races -- a clear majority.

The results complicate Chavez’s plan to change the law to run for reelection in 2012. The opposition defeated that move in a referendum last year and gained further ground on Sunday on the popular anti-U.S. president who came to power in 1999.

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 Chavez has failed 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 after 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.

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

Chavez, who campaigned frenetically saying his political future was at risk, claimed victory. It was “madness” to call the opposition the overall winner due to its gains, he said.

“We dealt them another defeat, and a big one,” he said.

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.

Chavez said his party won 80 percent of the mayoralties.


But emboldened by its second electoral advance in 12 months, the opposition also 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 build up its credibility that it can meet voters’ demands for better services such as trash collection.

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

“We need to build an alternative for a different Venezuela that brings people together in the center,” he said.

But Chavez, a former paratrooper who sought to polarize the election by threatening during the campaign to cut off funds -- or even deploy tanks -- in areas where “oligarchs” won, immediately went on the offensive on Monday.

He warned he would keep his eye on one opposition governor, Enrique Capriles of Miranda state, recalling a legal case accusing him of supporting a failed coup against Chavez in 2002.

The president, who shut an opposition TV station last year, demanded “severe sanction” against another channel for saying his candidate had lost in one race before it was official.

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.