Opposition Makes Gains In Venezuela Vote

By: AP
By: AP

President Hugo Chavez's opponents made important gains in Venezuela's local elections, capturing the Caracas mayor's office and three of the most populous states, but his allies won a strong majority.

With more than 95 percent of votes counted, pro-Chavez candidates kept gubernatorial posts in 17 states, while the opposition won five states. Chavez trumpeted his party's domination of Sunday's vote as a sign to continue driving Venezuela toward "21st-century socialism."

"The people are telling me: 'Chavez continue down the same road,'" he said, hinting that he has not abandoned plans for constitutional changes that would expand his powers, push the economy toward socialism and allow him to run for re-election indefinitely.

Voters rejected the president's proposed overhaul of the constitution last year but Sunday's results clearly encouraged Chavez, who famously described U.S. President George W. Bush as the devil at the United Nations and has cultivated relations with U.S. antagonists in Cuba as well as Iran and more recently Russia.

Tibisay Lucena, president of Venezuela's election council, said the opposition won in the two most populous states - Miranda and Zulia - as well as Nueva Esparta, Carabobo and Tachira. Opposition candidate Antonio Ledezma defeated a close Chavez confidant to become the next mayor of Caracas, the South American nation's capital and largest city.

"I'm delighted, and a bit surprised, that our candidates won in some of the most important states," said Delsa Perez, a 45-year-old housewife who voted for Ledezma because she was fed up with the capital's garbage-strewn and potholed streets.

Chavez faced an emboldened opposition aiming to break his party's near total control over local offices. Although the president's allies held a majority of posts, Sunday's results gained new ground for his political adversaries.

Chavez's brother, Adan, won a tight race to succeed their father as governor in the president's home state of Barinas.

Turnout topped 65 percent among the 16.8 million registered voters, a new high for a local election in Venezuela, Lucena said.

Ledezma called for cooperation between Chavez's government and opposition mayors, saying "I invite the president of the republic to work together to rescue Caracas" - a city blighted by crime, trash and crumbling infrastructure.

A similar invitation was offered by Henrique Capriles, who defeated one of Chavez's closest confidants to become the next governor of Miranda state, which includes part of Caracas.

"What's important is that the map of Venezuela has started to change," said opposition leader Manuel Rosales, calling the victories important gains for the anti-Chavez camp.

Chavez party spokesman Alberto Muller played down the opposition's resurgence.

"We are the country's foremost political force," said Muller, flanked by other red-clad Chavez allies. "We don't see an opposition victory on a political map painted red."

In 2004 state elections, Chavez allies swept all but two of 23 governorships and a majority of local offices. In this vote, 22 governorships, 330 mayoral posts and other offices were up for grabs.

After a decade in office, the president still enjoys solid popularity, but last year's defeat of his attempt to abolish term limits energized the opposition, which has also sought to capitalize on complaints about unchecked corruption, rising crime, deteriorating public services and double-digit inflation.

At least 106 people were detained by authorities during the vote, many for destroying balloting materials such as voter receipts, the attorney general's office said. Six were arrested in Guarico state for allegedly attacking voters.

One person also was stabbed in a clash between government supporters and opponents in Bolivar state, but authorities said the vote largely went smoothly.

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Associated Press writers Fabiola Sanchez and Jorge Rueda contributed to this report.

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