CARACAS, Venezuela - Allies of cancer-stricken President Hugo Chavez steamrolled Venezuela's opposition in gubernatorial elections on Sunday, winning 20 of 23 states. The only good news for the opposition was the re-election of its top leader, Henrique Capriles, who lost to Chavez in October's presidential vote.
The vote came less than a week after Venezuela's charismatic leftist president was operated on in Cuba for the fourth time for a stubborn cancer that many fear he won't beat. It was widely seen as a referendum on whether his socialist-inspired Bolivarian Revolution movement has enough momentum to outlive him.
Capriles' win sets him up as the presumed challenger to go up against Vice-President Nicolas Maduro, Chavez's hand-picked successor in presidential elections that would be held within 30 days of the president's death or separation from office.
"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 per cent 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 Tuesday's surgery.
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.
The strong showing by pro-Chavez candidates could give them a freer hand to deepen his socialist policies, including a drive to fortify grass-roots citizen councils that are directly funded by the central government.
The loss of ground by anti-Chavez candidates raises tough questions for the opposition. It lost five of the governorships previously held by Chavez opponents, including the country's most populous state, Zulia, an important centre of the oil industry that is Venezuela's economic lifeblood.
Capriles' beat former Vice-President Elias Jaua in the nation's second most populous state, Miranda, and his win will allow him to cement his position as the country's dominant opposition leader. 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. Some said the closeness of the vote to Christmas and apparent apathy among some voters contributed to the relatively low turnout.
"It seems like people are more interested in getting ready for Christmas than anything else," said Ricardo Mendez, a bus driver who voted for Jaua.
Chavez's political allies had framed the elections as a referendum on his legacy, urging people to dedicate the vote to the president. Banners went up on lampposts ahead of the vote reading "Now more than ever, with Chavez."
Chavez, meanwhile, remained out of sight in Cuba, recovering accompanied by his four children after the latest operation for pelvic cancer.
David Smilde, a University of Georgia sociology professor, said the president's candidates benefited from Venezuelans' uncertainty about a future without Chavez and fears of losing benefits they've accrued under him.
"I think with Chavez sick ... it makes them think what would things be like without Chavez," Smilde said. "People are thinking of their own interest."
There were some complaints of improper campaigning on election day. While voting was under way, Maduro spoke on television urging supporters to vote for Chavez's allies, while opponents called his remarks a violation of electoral rules.
Speaking at a news conference, Maduro implored voters: "Let's not fail Chavez." He addressed those who hadn't cast ballots yet, saying "let's not make a bad impression with our commander Chavez."
Opposition leader Ramon Guillermo Aveledo said his remarks violated a prohibition on campaigning on election day, and called for the National Electoral Council to take action. Vicente Diaz, a member of the council, called Maduro's comments inappropriate and said he would take up the matter with the council.
At polling stations, voters from both camps chatted about the possibility of a new presidential vote coming soon if Chavez is unable to remain in office.
Chavez is due to be sworn in for another term on Jan. 10. But if his condition forces him to step down, Venezuela's constitution requires that new presidential elections be held within 30 days.
Chavez said before undergoing the surgery that if he's unable to continue, Maduro should take his place and run for president.
Tinker Salas said that in the event of a presidential election, Chavez's allies would go into it with strong campaign machinery given their latest victories.
The opposition also continues to be stymied by "the lack of a clear programmatic alternative to Chavez," Tinker Salas said. He pointed out that Capriles tried to campaign against Chavez in the presidential vote espousing more moderate policies akin to those of former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, including keeping social programs for the poor, and he still lost.
"In this election, except for their dislike of Chavez, most candidates did not offer an alternative," he said.
Antonio Ledezma, the campaign manager for the opposition coalition, accused the government of "doing everything possible for abstention to win." He cited the electoral council's decision to schedule the vote at a time when many Venezuelans are leaving home on vacation, and also a government decision to push forward the start date of school vacations.
Ledezma also said, however, that the opposition's defeat is "an opportunity to reinvent ourselves."
Eduardo Gamarra, a Latin American studies professor at Florida International University in Miami, said that while it was an important victory for Chavez, the opposition also averted a potentially even worse outcome.
"Capriles also kept himself alive as a presidential contender, something important given the health of the president," Gamarra said.
Associated Press writers Frank Bajak in Lima, Peru, and Vivian Sequera and Christopher Toothaker in Caracas contributed to this report.