Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez throws his arms in the air while speaking… (Juan Barreto / Getty Images )
CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez apparently won reelection by a convincing margin Sunday, with allegiance among poor voters to his socialist revolution trumping dissatisfaction with a stunted economy, rising crime and the increasing polarization of society.
With 90% of votes counted, the National Electoral Council said Chavez, a 58-year-old former army colonel, won 54.4% of the vote, compared with challenger Henrique Capriles' 44.9%. Turnout was estimated to be as high as 80%, and there were few reports of violence or other problems.
Chavez sent a message of thanks on Twitter before addressing red-shirted multitudes assembled Sunday night outside the presidential Miraflores Palace.
"Viva Venezuela, viva the people of Bolivar, viva Oct. 7," Chavez said. "I want to recognize the Venezuelan people and give thanks for this memorable day. And to those who voted against us, I congratulate the leadership for recognizing the victory of the people."
Chavez was referring to Capriles' address to supporters in which he accepted defeat and congratulated his rival shortly after the electoral council's announcement.
"To know how to win, you have to know how to lose. What the people say is sacred," Capriles said. "I want to thank 6 million Venezuelans for their confidence.... I have learned a lot in the past six months."
The victory means that Chavez will be in office until February 2019, making him the hemisphere's longest-serving leader, if his health holds up. The burly socialist was diagnosed with abdominal cancer in June 2011 and has undergone three surgeries in Cuba and several rounds of chemotherapy.
In office since February 1999, Chavez has in many ways transformed Venezuelan society, channeling the nation's torrent of oil dollars into social welfare projects called Missions that deliver free medical care, housing, education and cut-rate groceries to the nation's poor.
But he also has dramatically polarized Venezuelan society with government takeovers of ranches, farms and businesses, and by characterizing political opponents in insulting terms. Chavez was briefly toppled by a coup d'etat in 2002 for which he blames the "squalid ones," meaning the rich and middle class.
Chavez was thought to be facing a stiff challenge in Capriles, a 40-year-old political wunderkind who is the son of a Caracas shopping mall developer. Capriles' campaign platform of fighting crime and ending government waste struck a responsive chord with voters.
But Chavez's bond with poor voters was once again highlighted by Sunday's result. In addition to winning four presidential contests by comfortable margins, he has won all but one of the several referendums he has put to voters. His only loss came in 2007 when a constitutional reform measure to enable him to run indefinitely for reelection was narrowly defeated.
As pollster Oscar Schemel told The Times in August, Chavez enjoys an "irrational and emotional devotion" among his extremely loyal poor voters that seems to transcend policy. "They feel he has set a place at the table for them, that his vision of the future includes them," Schemel said.
After casting his vote in a poor neighborhood in west Caracas, Chavez saluted supporters, who included Guatemalan Nobel Peace Prize laureate Rigoberta Menchu and Hollywood actor Danny Glover.
"We will respect the decision of the people, whether it's by 3 million votes or just one," Chavez said, expressing confidence in Venezuela's ballot-counting system, calling it "the best in the world."
Capriles voted in the affluent Mercedes zone of east Caracas and afterward said he too would respect the will of the electorate. "I'm very emotional and very happy," he said. "Something good is happening."
Capriles criticized Chavez for a rise in violent crime. He also lambasted Chavez for $7 billon in annual oil giveaways to Central American and Caribbean nations, mainly Cuba, saying the money should be invested in Venezuela.
A Chavez defeat would have reverberated far beyond Venezuela's borders. Many aspects of Chavez's socialism, as well as his populist and autocratic political style, have been emulated in other Latin American countries, including Ecuador, Bolivia, Argentina and Nicaragua. His disappearance from the political scene could have had the effect of emboldening opposition in those countries.
Even with his reelection, some observers think Chavez's socialist regime is running on borrowed time, that his cancer will probably kill him or force him to resign in the next couple of years.
If that happens in the first four years of a six-year term, another presidential election must be held, according to the Venezuelan Constitution, a race Capriles or another opposition opponent could win without Chavez around to galvanize his support base of mainly poor and working-class voters.