Election sets stage for 2012 presidential ballot, opposition claims majority.
CARACAS – Venezuela’s opposition won a third of the seats in parliament and claimed a majority of the popular vote in elections on Sunday, a boost to its campaign to beat President Hugo Chavez at the 2012 presidential election. Although Chavez’s Socialist Party will have a majority in the 165-seat National Assembly, it fell short of its goal of winning the two thirds needed to pass major laws and make appointments to the Supreme Court and election authorities without the support of its foes.
The newly-united opposition Democratic Unity umbrella group said it won 52 percent of votes in the election. If confirmed, it would be a symbolic blow to the socialist Chavez in the 12th year of his rule of South America’s top oil exporter.
“We are the majority!” sang opposition supporters after the results were announced in the early hours of Monday. After years of defeats and missteps, opposition leaders will now focus on trying to topple the man they call an autocrat at the ballot box in 2012, and will use their group in parliament to step up the pressure on Chavez. “This is a huge result for the opposition. They exceeded even their own expectations,” David Smilde, a Venezuela expert from the University of Georgia, told Reuters.
With the last results still coming in, however, Chavez was close to the three fifths of seats needed to give him special decree powers with which he could bypass parliament in implementing socialist reforms.
A baseball-mad former tank soldier who rose from a poor rural childhood, Chavez first tried to take power in a 1992 coup and has lost only one election since he won the presidency at the ballot box in 1998.
He has become one of the world’s most recognizable politicians, taking the crown from Cuba’s Fidel Castro as Latin America’s leading critic of Washington and nationalizing foreign oil companies in South America’s top crude exporter.
Chavez is widely accused of using bullying tactics against his opponents, although he can argue his democratic credentials are burnished by the opposition gains in Sunday’s vote.
He is still the country’s most popular politician but his approval ratings have been hit by a deep recession, soaring violent crime and electricity shortages.
Election authorities said on Monday that Chavez’s Socialist Party won at least 94 seats in the Assembly and that Democratic Unity took at least 60 seats. Five seats went to other parties and the results from the remaining six were not yet in. A source at the electoral council backed the opposition’s claim of winning 52 percent of the popular vote. “This gives us a lot of political power,” said Armando Briquett, spokesman for Democratic Unity.