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Key gains for Venezuela opposition

By Will Grant
BBC News, Caracas

Young supporters of Hugo Chavez peer from a car after election results were announced in Caracas, Venezuela, 23 November 2008
Chavez supporters in Caracas did not get the result they wanted

From the looks on the faces of people at the socialist party's celebration in the centre of Caracas, it was not the result they had been hoping for.

President Chavez's United Socialist Party (PSUV) has taken 17 out of 22 available state governorships, a result which in most situations would be considered a landslide.

But it is the nature of the seats taken by the opposition which makes their result seem more significant.

As well as the states of Carabobo and Tachira, the opposition won in:

  • the oil-rich state of Zulia
  • the most-populous state of Miranda
  • the capital itself, Caracas

The opposition now effectively control Venezuela's three biggest areas in terms of electorate and wealth.

Olive branch

Mr Chavez was quick to acknowledge his opponents' successes on national television, saying he "recognised the triumph of our adversaries".

There are new local authorities here who are ready to work in a coordinated way for the benefit of our people
Enrique Capriles Radonski
Opposition governor-elect of Miranda

"How can anyone say there is a dictatorship in Venezuela?" he asked.

"As head of state, I recognise their triumph and I hope that they'll recognise the head of state, the head of the government and the constitution."

The opposition, too, offered an olive branch.

The new governor-elect of Miranda, Henrique Capriles Radonski, directed his first comments after his election victory to Mr Chavez.

"I want to tell the president of the republic and the national government that there are new local authorities here who are ready to work in a coordinated way for the benefit of our people and with the sole aim of improving the lives of people in this state," said Mr Capriles.

Voters wait in line at a polling station in Caracas, 23 November 2008
Voter turnout was the highest Venezuela has seen in recent years

It would be wrong to suggest the socialists have been too heavily damaged by Sunday's vote.

They control the vast majority of the territory of Venezuela.

They also took back some crucial states, such as Sucre and Aragua.

And Hugo Chavez's brother, Adan, is the new governor of their home state of Barinas - something which was personally very important to the president.

Bitter pill

What does seem to have changed is the opposition's strength in key metropolitan areas, such as Caracas.

That the capital city has passed into the hands of an opposition leader, Antonio Ledezma, will be a bitter pill for the PSUV.

One of the opposition's key campaign pledges was reducing crime, a deep-seated problem in Caracas. The promise to improve security may have been partly responsible for its better-than-expected result here.

President Chavez waves to supporters during Sunday's election
The political map of Venezuela is still predominantly socialist red

Turnout, too, may have been influential, with these local elections seeing some of the highest polling figures for years.

If the opposition has been able to tap into the so-called "neither-nor" element of society - voters who are neither pro-Chavez nor pro-opposition - then they may have turned an important electoral corner.

Coming a year after Mr Chavez narrowly lost a constitutional referendum that would have allowed him to stand for indefinite re-election, questions will now be asked about his future.

His critics are likely to suggest the strong opposition showing signals a weakened president.

They may call for him to step aside, as the constitution defines, in 2012.

But as he approaches the 10th anniversary of his presidency, opinion polls still place Mr Chavez's personal support at well over 50%.

Those downbeat figures at the PSUV's election night party can take heart from the fact that, after Sunday's vote, the political map of Venezuela is still predominantly socialist red.

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