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Chavez foes claim symbolic victories

November 25, 2008|Chris Kraul | Kraul is a Times staff writer.

BOGOTA, COLOMBIA — Despite losing most races, opponents of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez claimed symbolic victories in Sunday's elections, saying the capture of Caracas City Hall and governorships of the nation's three most populous states will lessen Chavez's chances of abolishing term limits.

At a news conference Monday, Chavez, for his part, said the balloting, in which his candidates swept a clear majority of governorships, was a "victory for the revolution." He announced that his allies won 265 mayoral races, or 81%, versus 62 contests won by opposition candidates.

Controversy swirled in Barinas state, where Chavez's brother Adan was declared the winner of the governor's race by the National Electoral Council, although his opponent, Julio Cesar Reyes, said thousands of Barinas votes remained unaccounted for. Reyes urged his followers to "stay in the streets" to contest the election, whose results showed Adan Chavez ahead by 15,000 votes.

Assuming the Barinas result holds, Chavez's allies won 17 of 22 gubernatorial races, down from 20 victories in 2004 elections. Opposition candidates held on to Zulia and Nueva Esparta governorships and added Tachira, Carabobo and Miranda states.

Despite losing Venezuela's three most populous states, Zulia, Carabobo and Miranda, Chavez's gubernatorial candidates won about 55% of the popular vote altogether in the gubernatorial races, a demonstration of the popularity the fiery U.S. critic still commands nationwide. "We've handed them a new defeat, a big one," Chavez said at a news conference Monday night.

But the opposition in the sharply divided country could point to significant inroads, especially with Antonio Ledezma's capture of the mayoralty of Caracas, the capital, over Chavez ally Aristobulo Isturiz with a 100,000-vote margin.

Opposition figure and outgoing Zulia state Gov. Manuel Rosales won the mayor's race in Maracaibo, the country's second most populous city, even though -- or perhaps because -- Chavez threatened to jail him on corruption charges.

Maybe most surprising was the victory of opposition candidate Carlos Ocariz in the Caracas suburb of Sucre, site of the sprawling Petare slum, one of the largest in Latin America. Ocariz beat Jesse Chacon, a Chavez confidant and former interior minister.

"Ocariz broke the myth that Chavez cannot be beaten in poor barrios," said Luis Vicente Leon of Datanalisis, a Caracas-based pollster and political consultant. Chavez spent two days campaigning in Petare, Leon said.

Chavez's street credibility with the poor has been crucial to his durability as a politician and popular acceptance of his "21st century socialism," the banner under which Chavez offers a host of welfare programs, including free healthcare and discount groceries.

But voters rich and poor on Sunday expressed exasperation with Chavez's inability to address rising crime, fraying city services and 40% inflation, maladies that especially affect the poor.

Many voters are also unhappy with Chavez's attempts to gather more power. That was evidenced by the defeat in a referendum in December of proposed constitutional changes that would have permitted him to make unlimited reelection runs and appoint regional officials whose powers would have superseded elected governors and mayors.

During the recent campaign, Chavez, whose term ends in early 2013, said repeatedly that he wanted to stay in office indefinitely to see his revolution through. The opposition took that as a sign Chavez would launch another referendum. Chavez remains popular, with approval ratings consistently ranging from 55% to 60%.

"It's not enough that the opposition has won isolated triumphs against Chavez in places where it was unexpected," pollster Leon said. "They have to convert them into real plans and proposals if they are to compete with Chavez. That's their real challenge."

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chris.kraul@latimes.com

Special correspondent Mery Mogollon in Caracas contributed to this report.

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