Image: A supporter of Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez
Ariana Cubillos  /  AP
A supporter of Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez, holds up a poster of him as she is leaviing after learn the results of congressional elections, outside of Presidential Palace in Caracas, Venezuela, on Monday. President Hugo Chavez held on to a congressional majority in elections Sunday, but his opponents made gains that could help them challenge his grip on power.
By
updated 9/27/2010 7:54:44 PM ET 2010-09-27T23:54:44

Opponents of Hugo Chavez have won new clout to try to rein in a socialist leader who has ruled virtually unopposed, making gains in congressional elections that weaken the president ahead of his next re-election bid and could force him to deal with rivals.

Both sides claimed the results released Monday as a victory, but Chavez lost the two-thirds majority that has allowed his allies to ignore opponents in rewriting fundamental laws, appointing key officials such as Supreme Court justices and letting Chavez pass laws by decree.

Opposition leaders said they intend to start imposing some checks on Chavez, and hope the president is receptive to dialogue.

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Potentially just as significant in the long run were opposition claims they actually got more votes than Chavez-backed candidates did and were deprived of a majority in congress only because the system of districts is rigged in Chavez's favor.

That could pose a challenge for the president's hopes of winning re-election in 2012 — a contest based on the popular vote rather than electoral districts.

Suspicions that the popular vote ran against the president were fed by the fact that a day after the election, electoral officials still had not released total counts.

While his opponents celebrated the results, Chavez dismissed their claims of victory.

"Keep beating me like that," Chavez said with a laugh at a news conference. "The revolutionary forces obtained a very important victory."

With the vast majority of votes from Sunday's election counted, results showed that Chavez's socialist party won at least 96 of the 165 seats in the National Assembly, while the opposition coalition won at least 62 seats.

Chavez's party had dominated the outgoing legislature because rivals boycotted the past election. The only opposition came from about a dozen congressmen who broke away from the Chavez bloc.

The remaining seats in Sunday's voting went either to a small splinter party or had not yet been determined.

Ramon Guillermo Aveledo, leader of the opposition coalition, said its own tally showed anti-Chavez candidates garnered about 52 percent of the total popular vote.

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Opposition parties complain that recent electoral changes drawn up by the Chavista-controlled National Assembly gave heavier representation to rural areas where the president is most popular.

The opposition also expressed suspicion about the fact initial results were delayed seven hours even though Venezuela has an automated ballot system. Electoral officials cited close races as having caused the delays in declaring winners.

While the opposition fell short of its hopes of a congressional majority, newly elected lawmakers promised to bring a plurality of voices to the legislature to examine Chavez's policies as he campaigns to transform Venezuela into a socialist state.

Maria Corina Machado, a victorious anti-Chavez candidate, told The Associated Press it is important to exercise "control on the president so that he becomes the president of all Venezuelans." Machado, who used to lead the vote monitoring group Sumate, said priorities will include insisting on the separation of powers for independent branches of government, decentralizing power and fighting corruption.

Opposition leaders celebrated at the coalition's headquarters in Caracas, where they hugged and kissed.

Meanwhile, early street celebrations by Chavez supporters grew muted when the results were announced at about 2 a.m. Monday. Some backers showed disappointment by holding their heads in their hands while others thrust their fists in the air, declaring a triumph.

Some analysts expressed doubt, however, that Chavez or his allies would actually cross the deep political divide to consult with rivals after five years of ignoring and vilifying them as stooges of the U.S. government.

"It remains to be seen if President Chavez will respect that result in terms of not changing the rules of the game," said Moises Naim, former Venezuelan trade minister, told the AP in Singapore, where he was making a speech during a visit.

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"We don't know if these elections will force Chavez to start behaving in a more democratic way and respecting checks and balances, or if he will interpret this as a need to clamp down on any remaining checks and balances and concentrate power even more," he said.

Naim noted that Chavez in the past changed laws to take away power from opponents who won elections.

After an opposition candidate won the mayoral election in Caracas in 2008, the Chavez-controlled National Assembly stripped the elected mayor, Antonio Ledezma, of most of his budget and subordinated him to another official in a newly created position appointed by Chavez. Opposition governors say Chavez has used similar tactics against them.

Naim suggested Chavez might look for ways to bypass the National Assembly. "He has never treated the opposition as a political rival but rather a mortal enemy," Naim said.

Miguel Tinker Salas, a professor at Pomona College in Claremont, California, said the outcome could prompt Chavez to concentrate on resolving domestic problems.

"It might force him to be more pragmatic and increasingly more focused on internal matters, especially now that he's got his eye looking toward 2012," when he faces re-election, Tinker Salas said.

Still, the opposition lacks a strong presence in many rural states where Chavez remains most popular, making it more difficult for government foes to win strong backing for a presidential candidate within two years, Tinker Salas said.

Polls suggest Chavez remains the most popular politician in Venezuela, even if his popularity has slipped due to disenchantment over crime and an economy that has Latin America's slowest growth and highest inflation.

The opposition, a coalition of multiple parties, smoothed over past divisions and fielded a unified slate of candidates for the elections. It remains unclear which opposition leader, or leaders, could emerge as top presidential contenders in the 2012 vote.

Governments from Spain to Colombia offered congratulations for the largely peaceful vote and a high turnout of 66 percent.

While some leaders expressed hope the result would facilitate greater dialogue, Chavez's close ally and mentor Fidel Castro wrote in a column that it was a "victory for the Bolivarian Revolution."

In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Charles Luoma-Overstreet said, "All Venezuelans can now deepen their dialogue and demonstrate their respect for the diversity of views that is essential in a democracy."

___

Associated Press writers Fabiola Sanchez in Caracas and Alex Kennedy in Singapore contributed to this report.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Explainer: Venezuela: Nation's vote to test Chavez

  • Fernando Llano  /  AP
    People cheer during a recent rally by President Hugo Chavez's allies in Caracas, Venezuela. Election campaigning comes at a crucial time as recession, crime and inflation have pushed the socialist leader's popularity to a seven-year low.

    Much is at stake for Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who first won power in 1998 but has seen his popularity plunge due to increased crime, a recession and the highest inflation rate in the Americas.

    Chavez's opposition is certain to make gains in parliamentary elections on Sunday. While it won't be not enough to wrest legislative control from Chavez's party, it's the latest sign of the South American nation's shifting power struggle.

    Below is a look at the election campaigning for Venezuela's 165-seat National Assembly.

  • At stake

  • Woman walks past referendum graffiti in Caracas
    Jose Miguel Gomez  /  Reuters
    Graffiti sprayed across a wall has a large "yes" painted over a previous slogan saying "Chavez won't go," in Caracas.

    For observers, Venezuela's parliament vote comes at critical time as the nation faces a power struggle.

    On the one side, Chavez's popularity is hovering in the 40-50 percent range, according to most polls and analysts. That's well below his highs of previous years, but probably enough to ensure his ruling Socialist Party keeps a majority in parliament.

    For campaign rivals, the vote is guaranteed to give them at least some seats after they boycotted in 2005. Having united into an umbrella movement, the opposition's most realistic goal is to slash Chavez's majority to below two-thirds in the 165-seat assembly.

    For example, without a two-thirds majority, Chavez would need to court opposition support for laws or to make appointments.

    In the past, Chavez has used "fast-track" powers to bypass parliament and pass controversial laws such as those allowing him to nationalize parts of the oil sector or increase the number of Supreme Court magistrates.

    To get those powers again, Chavez would need support of three-fifths, or 99, of the lawmakers.

    Critics charge that Chavez would be tempted to dissolve the assembly altogether to get his way.

  • Chavez

    Image: Hugo Chavez
    Juan Barreto  /  AFP - Getty Images
    Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

    The energetic Chavez — who has replaced Cuba's Fidel Castro as Latin America's biggest annoyance for Washington — has criss-crossed Venezuela to drum up support for his candidates.

    A big victory for Chavez, 56, would probably mean an acceleration of his socialist overhaul of South America's top oil exporter.

    Some key facts about Chavez:

    * Born to a poor family in the Venezuelan plains on July 28, 1954.

    * Aspired to be a painter and then a professional baseball player.

    * Spent much of his later military career conspiring with other leftist officers to overthrow the country's traditional political order. A former lieutenant colonel, Chavez led a 1992 coup that failed but made him famous and propelled him toward the presidency.

    * Won 1998 presidential vote and took office the next year. Opposition politicians and dissident troops led a coup against him in 2002, but he was swept back to power in less than two days. Chavez accuses Washington of backing the plot.

    * Relished broad backing among Venezuela's poor majority with massive social spending to expand health and education programs, financed by income from oil exports.

    * Cultivated support by openly attacking the United States, which he denounces as a decadent empire.

    * Inspired by his friend and mentor, Fidel Castro, Chavez has taken Venezuela down a radical path, nationalizing large swathes of the economy and running the government with a personalized — many would say autocratic — style.

  • Rivals

  • Maria Corina Machado
    Ariana Cubillos  /  AP
    Independent opposition legislative candidate Maria Corina Machado waves to people in Caracas.

    Chavez faces a newly-united opposition umbrella group called Democratic Unity.

    Democratic Unity candidates believe voter discontent with Chavez's authoritarian style, one of the world's worst murder rates outside a war zone, a second year of recession and untamed inflation give them a real shot at winning a majority.

    "The people have fallen out of love with Chavez. We're coming back!" said Berta Morales, a veteran activist with Democratic Action, one of the parties in the opposition group.

    The opposition may run close to Chavez on the overall popular vote, giving it a symbolic boost ahead of 2012, although analysts believe his allies will keep control of the legislature.

  • Issues

    Image: Caracas slum
    Ariana Cubillos  /  AP
    Residents stand in their doorway of their home in La Pedrera, one of the poorest slums in Caracas.

    Among the main election issues:

    * CHAVEZ: Though his support is waning, Chavez remains loved among the poor for his populist style and social policies. Rivals regard him as a dictator.

    * CRIME: In one of the world's most violent countries outside a war zone, up to 16,000 people have been murdered in 2009, according to leaked police numbers and a non-governmental watchdog. Government officials were furious over a New York Times article implying Venezuela is now more dangerous than Iraq, saying groups conspired to blacken Chavez's image before the vote.

    * ECONOMY: Venezuela has been in recession since early 2009, inflation is among the world's highest, and businesses are squeezed of foreign currency. So from wealthy businessmen to Venezuelans queuing for buses, it's common to hear grumbling.

    * SERVICES: Chavez's popularity has taken a buffeting from water and power shortages since the end of last year, with many asking how such problems could happen in a resource-rich nation like Venezuela. The government said a drought and past economic growth had put pressure on the systems. Either way, the problems have eased in recent months. The rains arrived, water levels in the main Guri reservoir — where most of Venezuela's electricity is generated — are back up to high levels.

    * COLOMBIA: Chavez's recent diplomatic row with Colombia — he cut relations, then restored them when President Juan Manuel Santos took power — made headlines internationally. Chavez views Colombia as a U.S. pawn, while Bogota sees him as a tacit supporter of Colombia's left-wing rebels. But the issue is unlikely to sway many voters on September 26.

  • Programs

    Ariana Cubillos  /  AP
    Fidela Hernandez, 46, uses a washing machine after filling it with water bucket by bucket in La Pedrera. Research shows the slums have been growing, driven by migration of people from depressed rural areas to Caracas.

    Geared to improve the lives of poverty-stricken Venezuelans, Chavez launched new programs ahead of legislative elections. Among them:

    * The "Good Life" credit card allows residents a chance to buy food, household electronic goods at state-run stores.

    * The "Popular Tourism" program helps low-income residents see the country's natural wonders through subsidized tourism.

    * A plan for distributing cars that run on natural gas and carry a guarantee of free maintenance.

    * A program to sell Chinese household electronic goods like washing machines and televisions at a discount.

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