Monday, November 24, 2008

President Chavez of Venezuela Wins Majority in Key Local Test, Opposition Advances

Chavez wins majority in key local test, opposition advances

CARACAS (AFP) - - Leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on Monday hailed his party's majority victories in key local polls but recognized opposition gains, in five states and the capital Caracas.

A record of more than 65 percent of 17 million eligible voters turned out to vote for governors, mayors and heads of regional councils in Sunday's polls.

"Who can say there's a dictatorship in Venezuela?" Chavez said, in a jab at his many critics.

"A new stage is beginning. For me, as the leader of the Venezuelan socialist project, the people are telling me: 'Chavez, keep on the same path,'" the anti-US leader said.

The polls were seen as a test for Chavez and his drive for nationalization and social projects, amid growing discontent over escalating crime, corruption and inflation.

Despite Chavista gains, the opposition also made important advances, keeping hold of two states and winning populous central Miranda, southwestern Tachira and northern Carabobo, as well as the capital.

Candidates from Chavez's socialist party won 17 states out of 22, first results showed, in the vote which came almost 10 years after he was first elected.

Chavez's candidates also won back three states previously held by dissidents from his party.

The Venezuelan leader, a friend to Iran, Russia and Cuba's Fidel Castro, was expected to use the victory as a mandate to push for support to abolish term limits to try to win a third six-year term in 2012.

He criss-crossed the oil-rich South American country campaigning for his party's candidates, one year after his defeat in a referendum on extending his authority.

Opposition groups joined together to increase their chances for victory, running single candidates in a majority of states and municipalities in their bid to block Chavez's bid to extend his "21st century socialism."

Fireworks popped in the early hours in the capital Caracas, where opposition candidate Antonio Ledezma won a surprise victory over the socialist party candidate, Aristobulo Isturiz.

"I dedicate this victory to the most humble," Ledezma said, inviting Chavez to work with him to "rescue" Caracas, one of the continent's most dangerous, traffic-choked cities.

Famous for his fiery language, 54-year-old Chavez had threatened to imprison opponents, or even send tanks onto the streets if his party lost in Carabobo.

Around 300 candidates, mainly from the opposition, were prevented from running in the elections due to corruption allegations.

Chavez vowed earlier Sunday to press ahead with his socialist policies despite tumbling oil prices.

Venezuelan crude prices fell this week to 40.68 dollars per barrel, after floating above 120 dollars in the middle of the year.

In the capital's vast Petare slum, Maria Teresa Padron, 80, said she had voted for a candidate from Chavez's party to show her support for the president.

"God sent us Chavez. No one will give us the well-being this president offers us. No one took us into account before, but thanks to him, I live well now," Padron said.

Another resident, Cesar Alberto, chose an opposition candidate to protest the current mayor.

"The president came to support his candidates but not to see the problems here. There's rubbish, violence and a lack of water," he said, pointing to piles of trash.

Monday, November 24, 2008
15:26 Mecca time, 12:26 GMT

Chavez allies sweep state elections

The setbacks notwithstanding, the results could help Chavez to further consolidate his power

Allies of Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan president, have won a majority in state elections for governors and mayors.

With more than 95 per cent of votes counted, Venezuela's electoral agency said Chavez's allies have won 17 states in Sunday's vote.

But the opposition has won two of the most populous states and the mayor's post in Caracas.

They won in Miranda and Zulia as well as Nueva Esparta, Tibisay Lucena, president of the National Electoral Council, said.

Turnout was 65.45 per cent of almost 17 million eligible voters, a record for local election in recent years.

'Normal voting'

Teresa Bo, Al Jazeera's correspondent, reported that accusations of fraud had plagued the campaign but international observers said that the voting process was normal.

The polls were as a test for Chavez against an energised opposition.

His allies swept the last state elections in 2004, winning all but two of 23 governorships and a majority of local offices.

This time candidates competed for 22 governorships, 330 mayoral posts and other offices.

Chavez remains the country's most popular politician and enjoys overwhelming control of local offices.

His popularity has rebounded since he suffered his only electoral defeat in 2007 in a referendum that would have allowed him to seek re-election indefinitely.

Still, he faced an opposition buoyed by growing discontent over crime, corruption and inflation that have blighted his socialist ambitions.

Chavez has threatened to cut off national funds to states that end up in the hands of opponents.

He has said that the elections could decide "the future of the revolution, the future of socialism and also the future of Hugo Chavez".

Hostile opponents

Chavez is keen to lay the groundwork to extend his rule beyond 2013, when his six-year term ends.

But the setbacks in Miranda and Zulia could force Chavez to contend with hostile opponents with revived national clout.

Chavez already has a congress filled with supporters and a supreme court that critics say is in his pocket as he tries to hold on to power in state houses and city halls.

Candidates included Chavez's older brother Adan, who was in a tight race to succeed their father as governor of Barinas, Chavez's home state.

Chavez's ex-wife Marisabel Rodriguez was also on the ballot but on the opposition side.

Rodriguez, running for district mayor in her hometown, Barquisimeto, said her campaign may have been local but it was also "against the danger posed to democracy by leaving a single person in power for a long time".

"In spite of Chavez's popularity and that he has won a majority of the states, he has not won the support of a sector of the [Venezuelan] society," our correspondent said

"The government will have to work on how to win them back."

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies

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