- Associated Press - Monday, September 27, 2010

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — President Hugo Chavez’s allies won a strong majority in Venezuela’s congress but lost the two-thirds majority needed to carry out major changes on their own, according to election results released Monday.

With the vast majority of votes from Sunday’s election counted, Mr. 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. Mr. Chavez’s party previously held an overwhelming majority in the outgoing congress because much of the opposition boycotted the last election.

The remaining eight seats Sunday either went to a small splinter party or had not yet been determined, she said.

The council’s initial bulletin did not mention the popular vote. Opposition parties have alleged that congressional districts are drawn to over-represent the government’s strength — an advantage Mr. Chavez will not have in the 2012 presidential vote.

Mr. 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 major 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 gathered outside the presidential palace showed mixed emotions when Ms. Lucena announced the results. Some showed disappointment by holding their heads in their hands while others thrust their fists in the air and 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 one another 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,” Mr. Perez said.

Miguel Tinker Salas, a professor at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., said the outcome could prompt Mr. 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, Mr. Tinker Salas said.

Still, the opposition lacks a strong presence in many of the rural states where Mr. 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 that Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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,” Mr. Wilpert added, noting the opposition attempted — and failed — to oust Mr. 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 Mr. 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, Mr. 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 U.S. government. He largely has funded his government with Venezuela’s ample oil wealth, touting social programs targeted to his support base.

During the campaign, Mr. Chavez 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 U.S. government.

Associated Press writers Fabiola Sanchez, Jorge Rueda and Ian James contributed to this report.




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