Chavez allies see congressional majority cut back

CHRISTOPHER TOOTHAKER - Associated Press Writer

President Hugo Chavez's allies held on to control of Venezuela's congress in election results released Monday, but his opponents made major gains that trimmed the firebrand leader's power — an achievement that sent him a warning with two years to go before the next presidential vote.

Both sides claimed the results were a victory, but Chavez lost the two-thirds majority that has allowed his allies to ignore the opposition while giving the president decree powers, rewriting fundamental laws and appointing key officials such as Supreme Court justices.

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. Chavez's party had held an overwhelming majority in the outgoing congress because the opposition boycotted the past election.

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

A day after the vote, electoral officials still had not released actual vote counts.

Ramon Guillermo Aveledo, leader of the opposition coalition, said its own counts showed anti-Chavez candidates garnered a majority of the popular vote despite getting fewer than half the seats up for election.

Opposition parties complain that recent electoral changes drawn up by Chavez's allies give heavier representation to rural areas where the president is most popular. It is an advantage Chavez will not have in the 2012 presidential vote.

While government opponents celebrated the results as a victory, Chavez dismissed their claims in posts on Twitter. "The squalid ones say they won. Well, let them keep 'winning' like that!" Chavez wrote.

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, declaring a triumph.

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.

The opposition's goal was to win a majority of the assembly's seats. Even though they fell short, they will be now able to put some constraints on Chavez's lawmaking power, and will also be empowered to demand checks on government spending.

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.

"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 that Chavez opponents attempted — and failed — to oust Chavez through a 2002 coup.

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.

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 U.S. 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 U.S. government.


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