Henrique Capriles, center, receives congratulations in Caracas as initial… (Fernando Llano / Associated…)
CARACAS — Former opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles appeared to have won reelection as governor of a key Venezuelan state Sunday, positioning himself for a possible presidential run if ailing President Hugo Chavez cannot take the oath of office for another term in January.
But initial tallies showed Chavez allies taking all but two of the other 22 statehouses that were up for grabs. Analysts said the near-sweep was fueled by sympathy for the cancer-stricken leader, who is being treated in Cuba after his fourth surgery for pelvic cancer.
The closely watched Miranda gubernatorial election is expected to have a significant bearing on Venezuela's political future if Chavez cannot begin his fourth term.
With 94% of votes counted Sunday evening, Capriles had 50.5%. His closest opponent, the Chavista party's Elias Jaua, had 46%.
Capriles, who lost to Chavez in October's presidential election, needed to beat Jaua, a former vice president and close Chavez confidant, to position himself as opposition candidate in case a new election is called to replace Chavez, as the constitution would require if Chavez cannot take the oath of office.
Chavez acknowledged the severity of his illness for the first time Dec. 8. In a nationwide address, he said his cancer may force him to resign or not take the oath for another term.
All told, Venezuelans went to the polls to elect 23 governors and 237 members of state assemblies. Turnout was reported as light in and around the nation's capital, Caracas.
In addition to Miranda state, opposition candidates were leading in Lara and Amazonas states, according to a bulletin issued by the National Election Commission. They were losing, however, in states including Tachira and Zulia, long considered the opposition's bastions of strength.
Opposition party leaders slammed Vice President Nicolas Maduro for holding a news conference Sunday to urge Venezuelans to vote, which they called a violation of electoral rules that prohibit trying to influence voters on the day of balloting.
"Today there has been a flagrant violation of the law," said opposition deputy Alfonso Marquina, referring to Maduro's declarations. Energy Minister Rafael Ramirez called on Venezuelans to vote as well.
Also on Sunday, the state-controlled VTV channel broadcast a telephone call from Cuba from Jorge Arreaza, Chavez's son-in-law and minister of science technology and innovation. Arreaza said Chavez was making progress in his recovery from Tuesday's surgery, during which serious hemorrhaging was reported.
"The president has full mental powers to send his love to the people of the Americas. Commandante Chavez continues … his battle in the slow process of recuperation," Arreaza said. "He asked me to send a message to the people to participate in Sunday's vote."
More than 17 million Venezuelans were eligible to vote.
Special correspondents Mogollon reported from Caracas and Kraul from Bogota, Colombia.