THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Chavez loses some ground

Independent opposition legislative candidate Maria Corina Machado celebrated with a supporter in Caracas yesterday. Independent opposition legislative candidate Maria Corina Machado celebrated with a supporter in Caracas yesterday. (Leonard Ramirez/ Associated Press)
By Christopher Toothaker
Associated Press / September 28, 2010

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CARACAS — President Hugo Chavez’s allies held onto control of Venezuela’s congress in election results released yesterday, 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, Governor 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.

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.

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