CARACAS, Venezuela — Opponents of President Hugo Chavez captured enough political terrain in Sunday's state and local elections to slow but not stop his grand ambitions to yank Venezuela and Latin America to the left, analysts said on Monday.
With both sides claiming victory, the results seem likely to set up another titanic battle in Venezuela. Chavez, 54, is expected to seek a national plebiscite early next year that would allow him to campaign for an additional six-year presidential term in 2012. Otherwise, Chavez would have to step down in early 2013 after 14 years in power.
"He wants to change the constitution to run again," said pollster Luis Vicente Leon. "There's no doubt about that."
Opposition party candidates on Monday celebrated winning the country's three most populous states, two smaller ones and the city of Caracas — in their best electoral showing in eight years.
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Chavez, however, remains the country's dominant political figure. His candidates won about 58 percent of the overall vote in the governor's races, including 17 of the 22 contests. Chavez said his candidates won 80 percent of the mayoral races.
Chavez's older brother, Adan, was elected governor of Barinas by defeating a onetime Chavez supporter. The president's ex-wife, Marisabel Rodriguez, badly lost her race to be mayor of Barquisimeto on an anti-Chavez platform.
Following the elections, Chavez still exercises near-absolute control over the country's Congress. His appointees run the central bank, oversee the judicial system and manage state companies that his government has nationalized.
Chavez's government also runs programs highly popular in poor neighborhoods that give free health care delivered by Cuban doctors and that allow adults to return to school for no cost to get primary school, high school or university degrees.
Orlando Goncalves, a Caracas-based political consultant, said Chavez has the advantage in any upcoming referendum. "The president has a plan, and he knows what he wants," Goncalves said. "The opposition doesn't have a clear plan and remains divided."
Leon noted that the failure of opposition parties to settle on a single candidate in the winner-takes-all elections on Sunday likely cost them two governor's races.
In a nationwide televised address from the presidential palace Monday night, Chavez said opposition politicians are too busy knifing each other in the back to defeat him.
Chavez said the election results strengthened democracy in Venezuela.
So many Venezuelans voted on Sunday — turnout was 65 percent — that some didn't get to make their selections on the touch screen machines until six hours after polling stations had officially closed.
Goncalves said that in Sunday's elections, Chavez's candidates won 1.8 million votes more than Chavez did a year ago when Venezuelans rejected his proposal to abolish term limits and centralize the economy even further. Opposition candidates on Sunday won 300,000 votes less than they did a year ago.
"We won a tremendous victory," Chavez said in his nationwide talk, which lasted more than two hours. Chavez read the election results state by state to make his point that his side — or "21st Century Socialism" as he calls it — was the real victor.
Still, the opposition could take heart. Opposition parties will now hold five governor's offices, up from two, including the powerhouse states of Zulia, Miranda and Carabobo. Antonio Ledezma defeated a Chavez collaborator to be elected mayor of Caracas, the capital.
"We have to get to work to clean up Caracas," Ledezma said on Monday, noting that the city has perhaps the highest homicide rate in the world.
Carlos Ocariz, another opposition candidate, is the new mayor of Sucre, a sprawling slum district in eastern Caracas that had been a Chavez stronghold but is now beset by crime.
Manuel Rosales, who lost the 2006 presidential campaign to Chavez, was elected as mayor of Maracaibo, Zulia's capital.
"Chavez has to understand now that he has to negotiate, although I don't know if he's capable of doing that," said Alejandro Plaz, who is organizing an opposition civic group. "Chavez has just given orders to his governors, like they were his soldiers. He can't do that any more."
Plaz said Sunday's elections also likely signal problems for Chavez in congressional elections scheduled for 2010.
Plaz noted that analysts project a coming slowdown for Venezuela's oil-based economy with the sharp drop in oil prices.
"He'll have less money to spend," Plaz said.
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