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Last Updated: Tuesday, 6 December 2005, 10:25 GMT
Chavez opponents face tough times
By Greg Morsbach
BBC News, Caracas

Venezuelan President Huge Chavez greets supporters after voting
Analysts say Chavez will find it hard to resist an autocratic rule
Congressional elections in Venezuela have led to a seismic shift, with the country's new National Legislative Assembly now dominated by the left-wing bloc loyal to President Hugo Chavez.

Final results have yet to be announced, but it is clear that the main opposition parties are facing much soul searching after a crushing defeat at the hands of "Chavismo", the populist left-wing movement named after Mr Chavez.

Most opposition candidates pulled out of the race in protest at what they saw as a biased electoral board and flawed vote counting practices.

Opposition activists are asking themselves: "Where did it all go wrong?"

And the more burning question is: "Where do we go from here?"

The democratic spaces in the Venezuelan state are being closed off
Prof Margarita Lopez-Maya
"The opposition in Venezuela has committed suicide by boycotting the elections," said political scientist Margarita Lopez-Maya.

"They only have themselves to blame for the disastrous blunder of pulling out of the race."

The US state department and opposition politicians have jumped on the fact that three-quarters of Venezuelans opted to stay at home rather than vote. They say it proves that public confidence in Venezuelan public institutions is at a low ebb.

Professor Lopez-Maya, who is sympathetic to the goals of Mr Chavez's revolutionary cause, admits that Venezuela's firebrand leader has a tendency of concentrating and centralising power.

She said: "The democratic spaces in the Venezuelan state are being closed off and before too long there will be an imbalance of power in the state's institutions."

However, she argues that there is a trade-off in Venezuela.

As the conventional understanding of democratic governance diminishes, there is a lot more social democratisation than ever before, such as the range of social programmes on offer in the shantytowns, funded by Venezuela's oil bonanza.


President Chavez and his political allies are being presented with a situation where it is very tempting to change Venezuela's fundamental laws and the constitution to tailor his quest for "socialism of the 21st century".

Voters wait at a polling station in Caracas
The opposition boycott affected voting turnout
Mr Chavez has made no secret of the fact that he is in favour of amending the constitution so that he can run again for president in 2012.

"Mr Chavez will find it difficult to avoid falling into the trap of ruling like a totalitarian autocrat," said Julio Cesar Pineda, a former Venezuelan career diplomat.

"If he uses parliament as a fig leaf of democracy he will become more and more isolated internationally."

Analysts are pondering whether the shift in the assembly elections will have a fall-out for Latin America.

"The more President Chavez seeks to weaken Venezuela's parliamentary democracy, the bigger the distance will grow between Venezuela and Latin American countries where there are robust pluralist assemblies like in Brazil, Chile and Mexico," Mr Pineda told the BBC News website.

Regional impact?

The shifts in Venezuela's parliament are unlikely to be felt abroad in the short term.

Latin America

"Hugo Chavez is extremely popular in Latin America. They love his style of standing up to Uncle Sam," said Larry Birns, head of the Washington-based Council Of Hemispheric Affairs (COHA).

"In some places he is even more popular than that country's own president."

Mr Birns believes it will be business as usual on the international stage for President Chavez once the dust has settled at home.

Venezuela is due to become a fully-fledged member of the South American trade bloc, Mercosur, in mid-December.

It is widely believed Mr Chavez will make an effort to appear more tolerant towards political opposition since a clause in the Mercosur agreement binds member states to uphold democracy.

As many of his South American neighbours benefit one way or another from Mr Chavez handing out cheap oil and gas supplies, as well as the use of Venezuelan pipelines, it seems unlikely there will be too much of a fuss made at the forthcoming Mercosur summit.

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