Venezuelan Opposition Gains in Vote

Por Venezuela Real - 24 de Noviembre, 2008, 17:58, Categoría: Prensa Internacional

The New York Times
November 24, 2008

CARACAS, Venezuela — President Hugo Chávez’s supporters suffered defeat in several state and municipal races on Sunday, with the opposition retaining power in Zulia, the country’s most populous state, and winning crucial races here in the capital, the National Electoral Council said.

Pro-Chávez candidates won 17 of the 22 governor’s races at stake. Many of the seats that Mr. Chavez’s supporters did win were in relatively sparsely populated rural states.

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 more than a third of Venezuela’s 26 million people.

In the early hours of Monday, electoral officials announced opposition victories in two important states, Táchira, on the border with Colombia, and Carabobo, with a large industrial base.

An opposition candidate also won in Sucre, a municipality in Caracas with sprawling slums that had been a symbolic bastion of support for Mr. Chávez since he rose to power a decade ago.

“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.

Celebratory fireworks exploded 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 mayor’s race in Caracas. He will replace Juan Barreto, an outspoken supporter of Mr. Chávez who once tried using blimps equipped with security cameras to fight crime in the city.

The results will be a test for Venezuela’s beleaguered political institutions, depending on 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 pick new regional officials, effectively diminishing the power of opponents elected elsewhere 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 results were delivered by electoral officials around midnight here.

His conciliatory tone contrasted with that of his recent threats, including a warning that he might send tanks to occupy Carabobo State, which has a large industrial base and 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, including Carlos Ocariz, who won Sucre, which includes Petare.

Food-price inflation , which is running above 50 percent, and soaring homicide rates were prominent campaign issues. Elections, though, also revolved around the president’s personality. Mr. Chávez, 54, a former career military official, 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.

There were no reports of major voting irregularities, even if delays and confusion emerged in some areas.

In Barinas, Mr. Chávez’s home state, 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 had switched his choices. The problem was reported in televised comments by Mr. Chávez’s older brother, Adán, who narrowly won an election to replace his father, fortifying a dynasty that had been plagued repeatedly by accusations of corruption and abuse of power.

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

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