Caracas: President Hugo Chavez`s opponents blocked him from capturing an overwhelming majority in Venezuela`s congressional election, making gains that could challenge the firebrand leader`s tight grip on power.
With the vast majority of votes from Sunday`s election counted, Chavez`s socialist party won at least 96 of the 165 seats in the National Assembly, while the opposition coalition won at least 61 seats, National Electoral Council president Tibisay Lucena said early Monday. The remaining eight seats either went to a small splinter party or had not yet been determined, she said.
Chavez hailed it as a "solid victory" in an online posting on Twitter, but he fell short of his goal of keeping the two-thirds majority that has allowed his allies to push through controversial changes unopposed. Until now, pro-Chavez lawmakers have been able to rewrite laws unopposed and unilaterally appoint officials, including Supreme Court justices and members of the electoral council.
A crowd of government supporters who had gathered outside the presidential palace showed mixed emotions when Lucena announced the results. Some showed disappointment by holding their heads in their hands while others thrust their fists in the air, declared the outcome a triumph.
Earlier, Chavez backers drove through downtown Caracas celebrating, waving party flags and honking horns. Powerful fireworks exploded above the streets, echoing throughout much of the capital.
Opposition leaders celebrated at the coalition`s headquarters in Caracas, where they hugged and kissed each other amid smiling supporters.
In the western state of Zulia, where the opposition won 12 of the 15 posts up for grabs, Gov. Pablo Perez attributed the opposition`s gains to the coalition`s decision to field a single candidate for each of the 165 seats being contested.
"We showed Venezuela that we can advance if we`re united," Perez said.
Miguel Tinker Salas, a professor at Pomona College in Claremont, California, said the outcome could prompt Chavez to concentrate on resolving pressing domestic problems, which include rampant violent crime, a lingering economic recession and Latin America`s highest rate of inflation.
"It might force him to be more pragmatic and increasingly more focused on internal matters, especially now that he`s got his eye looking toward 2012," when he faces re-election, Tinker Salas said.
Still, the opposition lacks a strong presence in many of the rural states where Chavez remains most popular, making it more difficult for government foes to win strong backing for a presidential candidate within two years, Tinker Salas said.
Polls suggest Chavez remains the most popular politician in Venezuela, yet surveys also have shown a decline in his popularity in the past two years as disenchantment has grown over the nation`s persisting domestic problems.
The opposition, which boycotted the last legislative elections in 2005, dramatically increased its representation beyond the dozen or so lawmakers who defected from Chavez`s camp in the current National Assembly.
The opposition`s goal was to win a majority of the assembly`s seats. Even though they fell short, they will be able to put some constraints on Chavez`s lawmaking power because they prevented his allies from winning a two-thirds majority.
"There`s going to be some paralysis in the assembly because many decisions require a two-thirds majority, it`s going to put some brakes on Chavez`s project," said Gregory Wilpert, author of the book "Changing Venezuela By Taking Power."
"For the opposition it`s a mixed bag, but it`s a step forward in the sense that they`ve committed themselves to playing the democratic game," Wilpert added, noting the opposition attempted — and failed — to oust Chavez through a 2002 coup. Then opponents boycotted the last congressional vote in 2005, allowing Chavistas to dominate the assembly.
Ramon Guillermo Aveledo, leader of the opposition coalition, criticized an election law passed by Chavez`s allies that redrew some legislative districts and gave greater weight to votes in rural areas, where the president remains more popular. Opposition candidates agreed to participate in the elections and respect the results as long as the vote count was transparent.
Since he was first elected in 1998, Chavez has fashioned himself as a revolutionary-turned-president, carrying on the legacy of his mentor Fidel Castro, with a nationalist vision and a deep-seated antagonism toward the US government. He has largely funded his government with Venezuela`s ample oil wealth, touting social programs targeted to his support base.
During the campaign, Chavez had portrayed the vote as a choice between his "Bolivarian Revolution" and opposition politicians he accuses of serving the interests of the wealthy and his adversaries in the US government.