Caracas: President Hugo Chavez`s allies won a sweeping victory in Venezuela`s gubernatorial elections, capturing a large majority of states and showing their ruling party still has muscle even as cancer has put the socialist leader`s future in question.
Chavez`s movement won 20 of 23 states, according to results announced by electoral council. Opposition leader Henrique Capriles held on for a re-election win in Miranda state, one of three opposition candidates declared winners.
Capriles lost to Chavez in the country`s October presidential election, and his re-election as governor yesterday will allow him to cement his position as Venezuela`s dominant opposition leader. But the loss of ground by other opposition candidates raises tough questions for government adversaries as they prepare for the possibility of new presidential elections if cancer cuts short Chavez`s tenure.
The opposition lost five of the governorships it previously held, including the country`s most populous state, Zulia.
The timing of the elections, just five days after Chavez`s latest cancer surgery in Cuba on Tuesday, appeared to benefit the Chavistas.
Jorge Rodriguez, campaign manager for the pro-Chavez camp, hailed the victory saying it represented "the map painted red" - the colour of Chavez`s socialist party.
"It really does underscore the fact that Chavismo really can survive, at least at the regional level, without Chavez," said Miguel Tinker Salas, a Latin American studies professor at Pomona College in Claremont, California.
"The reality is that the Chavistas today proved that their movement is institutionalized enough to sustain itself and to win statehouses in almost 90 percent of Venezuela."
The vote was the first in Chavez`s nearly 14-year-old presidency in which he has been unable to actively campaign. He hasn`t spoken publicly since undergoing surgery on Tuesday.
The strong showing by pro-Chavez candidates could help them deepen his socialist policies, including a drive to fortify grass-roots citizen councils that are directly funded by the central government.
Capriles beat Elias Jaua, Chavez`s former vice president, to win Miranda state, which includes part of the capital of Caracas. His supporters celebrated shouting with their hands in the air while fireworks exploded overhead.
Capriles told supporters in a victory speech that "it`s difficult to come here and show a smile."
"This is a difficult moment, but in every difficult moment opportunities emerge," Capriles said, wearing a track suit emblazoned with the yellow, blue and red of the Venezuelan flag. "We have to strengthen ourselves more."
The 53 per cent voter turnout was considerably lower than the more than 80 per cent who cast ballots in October`s presidential vote, when Chavez won another six-year term.