Hugo Chavez Allies Score Big Wins in Venezuela Elections

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by
McClatchy Newspapers

Hugo Chavez Allies Score Big Wins in Venezuela Elections

by
Tyler Bridges

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has hailed his party's majority victories in key local polls but recognized opposition gains, in five states and the capital Caracas. (AFP/Thomas Coex)

CARACAS - President Hugo Chavez's candidates won a majority of the
governor's elections in Venezuela on Sunday, but opposition forces
could point to gains with victories in several major states as well as
the capital city, Caracas.

Both sides declared victory.

"The
people are telling me, 'Chavez, continue down the same road, the road
of socialism,' " Chavez said early Monday just after the main results
were announced.

But he also acknolwedged the opposition's advance. "We have to carry out a self-criticism where that's necessary.

The stakes were high because the election results will determine Chavez's next moves at home and abroad.

Chavez's
gubernatorial candidates won 17 of the 22 states, according to the
state election board. The opposition held onto Zulia and Nueva
Espartaand took control of Miranda, Carabobo, Tachira and metropolitan
Caracas, where Antonio Ledezma is the new mayor.

Chavez can claim
satisfaction because his older brother, Adan, won a tight race to be
the new governor in their home state, Barinas. Their father is the
outgoing governor.

The opposition was hopeful that it would win
Carabobo and Tachira, the two other states whose results remained in
doubt early Monday morning.

Chavez's party won all but two of the
the governor's races contested in 2004, so while he won most of the
races on Sunday, the opposition parties gained ground, particularly in
the country's biggest states.

Chavez had signaled that he wanted
a mandate Sunday to seek public approval early next year to abolish
term limits so he can seek another six-year term in 2012. He lost a
similar referendum one year ago, his only electoral defeat in 10 years
as president.

Chavez also wanted a mandate to further his ''21st
Century Socialist Revolution'' so he can nationalize more companies and
gain more political power for both himself and his followers so they
can rule as they see fit.

Charismatic and constantly preaching
his solidarity with the poor, Chavez enjoyed a 57 percent approval
rating in October in one poll and had bet that his popularity would
pull his candidates to victory.

Chavez also wanted to fortify his
role as Latin America's most powerful leader in the post-Castro era. As
a measure of this, he will host Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in
Caracas on Wednesday in a meeting of two oil-rich nations that have
testy relations with the United States.

Opposition forces wanted to build upon last year's victory to thwart Chávez's grand ambitions.

Chavez
crisscrossed Venezuela over the past two months, using the full force
of his government to push for his 22 candidates for governor and 328
candidates for mayor.

State television and radio stations
broadcast pro-Chavez ads, and government officials handed out free
refrigerators, washing machines and mattresses in poor neighborhoods.

The race in the western plains state of Barinas was important symbolically.

Chavez's
father had been governor for 10 years. Two of his brothers hold public
jobs in Barinas while two others have contracts to do business with the
state.

Accusations that the Chavez family during its 10 years in
power has built mansions and bought ranches had given Barinas Mayor
Julio Cesar Reyes a fighting chance to defeat Adan Chavez and inflict
an embarrassing defeat for President Chavez.

In Barquisimeto, a
city in western Venezuela, Chavez's ex-wife, Marisabel Rodríguez, was
running for mayor on an anti-Chavez platform. The result was not known
early Monday morning.

Also not known was the result in Sucre, a
sprawling slum district in metropolitan Caracas. Opposition candidate
Carlos Ocariz ran against Jesse Chacon, a former Chavez minister.

In the Sucre neighborhood of Petare, two dozen pro-Chavez voters didn't identify Chacon by name when asked whom they supported.

''For
the revolutionary process,'' said Yumelis Montano, a 47-year-old
seamstress, ''it is going well.'' Montano, like virtually all the other
pro-Chavez voters, cited government assistance in explaining her vote.
Montaño has received free medicine from Cuban doctors who work in poor
neighborhoods in a program created by Chavez's close relationship with
Cuba.

Wendys Bello, 33, voted for the government candidates
because she credited Chavez with allowing her to get her high school
degree next month in one of the government's free educational programs
known as ''missions.'' Dixia Nava, 48, favored Chavez's candidates
because of government grocery stores in poor neighborhoods that allow
her to buy food at a deep discount.

Jorge Padilla, a 40-year-old
house painter, voted for Chavez's candidates because Chavez gave
citizenship to thousands of illegal Colombian immigrants in Venezuela,
like himself.

But many other people at this voting station in
Petare favored opposition candidate Ocariz, a former congressman,
because of skyrocketing crime.

Jhon Saez was robbed of $5,000 by a man who shoved a gun in his bank as he left a bank 10 days ago.

Alberto Flores was held up by a gun-wielding assailant outside his home on Wednesday and lost $200.

''Chavez
doesn't care about the crime problem,'' Flores said. At a more upscale
Caracas neighborhood, Magaly Rodriguez, a retired government worker,
called Chavez a ''demagogue, a liar, a person taking us backward,''
when she explained why she voted for the opposition slate.

Venezuelans
voted on touch screen machines. Each person had up to six minutes to
vote. After voting, each person dipped their right pinkie in an inkwell
to prevent voting a second time.

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