The New York Times
November 24, 2008
CARACAS, Venezuela — President Hugo Chávez’s supporters suffered a stinging defeat in several state and municipal races on Sunday, with the opposition retaining power in oil-rich Zulia, the country’s most populous state, and winning crucial races here in the capital.
The losses were Mr. Chávez’s second setback at the polls in the past year, after the defeat of a proposed constitutional overhaul last December that would have enhanced his powers. The results will put opponents of Mr. Chávez in charge of areas with about a third of Venezuela’s 26 million people.
“These victories came in the economic and political centers of the country,” said Luis Vicente León, director of Datánalisis, a polling firm here. “They represent the most important symbols in terms of cities and population.”
Particularly here in Caracas, the results were rooted in festering discontent over the government’s inability to lower violent crime as homicides and kidnappings have surged over the past decade, making it one of the world’s deadliest cities. In the early hours of Monday, celebratory fireworks went off over parts of the city after the results were announced.
“Those who should feel defeated are the criminals,” said Antonio Ledezma, the opposition candidate who won the mayoralty of Caracas. He will replace Juan Barreto, an outspoken supporter of Mr. Chávez who at one point tried using blimps equipped with security cameras to fight crime in the city.
The election results will be a test for Venezuela’s beleaguered political institutions, depending how the president reacts. Despite the inroads made by the opposition, followers of Mr. Chávez still control the Supreme Court, the National Assembly, the federal bureaucracy and every state company.
Mr. Chávez recently signaled that he might move to handpick new regional authorities, effectively depleting the power of opponents elected by voters.
"Who can say there is a dictatorship in Venezuela?" Mr. Chávez asked in televised comments in which he congratulated his opponents after the result were delivered by electoral officials around midnight here.
Mr. Chávez’s conciliatory tone stood in contrast to threats he had recently leveled, including a warning that he might send tanks to occupy Carabobo, a state with a large industrial base where the political opposition has been gaining strength. He had also said he would jail a top political rival, whom he called a “swine,” in western Zulia State.
“I am tired of Chávez treating the entire country as if it were his military barracks,” said Heriberto González, 65, a carpenter, after he voted in Petare, a sprawling patchwork of slums here.
Mr. González said he voted for a slate of opposition candidates opposing Mr. Chávez. Still, the results for the mayoralty of Sucre, the municipality encompassing Petare, were not released in the first statement by electoral officials. Other prominent races in Carabobo, a state with a large industrial base, and Táchira, a state on the border with Colombia, were apparently too close to declare a winner, Mr. Chávez said.
Food-price inflation, which stands above 50 percent, and soaring homicide rates were prominent campaign issues. Elections, though, also revolved around the personality of Mr. Chávez, 54, a former career military official who blames previous governments or the United States, which he regularly calls the “empire,” for many of Venezuela’s ills.
Miroslava Toro, 35, a resident of Petare, said: “We have problems in Venezuela, but I am certain the return of the oligarchy would make them worse. I know in my heart that Chávez cares about the poor.” Ms. Toro, a maintenance supervisor at a state health clinic, said she had voted for Mr. Chávez’s candidates.
Voting unfolded without reports of major irregularities, even if delays and confusion emerged in some areas.
In Mr. Chávez’s home state of Barinas, where his family was hoping to maintain its decade-long hold on power, his father, Hugo de los Reyes Chávez, the departing governor, said an electronic voting machine switched his choices.
The problem was reported in televised comments by Mr. Chávez’s older brother, Adán, who narrowly won a bid to replace his father, fortifying a dynasty that had been plagued repeatedly by accusations of corruption and abuse of power.
In all, pro-Chávez candidates won 17 of the 22 states up for grabs, though some of the victories were in relatively small states in terms of population. In the populous Miranda State, which includes part of Caracas, a top confidant of the president, Diosdado Cabello, lost to a rising star in the opposition, Henrique Capriles Radonski.
María Eugenia Díaz and Sandra La Fuente P. contributed reporting.