Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez scored a comfortable election victory that could extend his rule to 20 years and vowed to deepen his self-styled socialist revolution that has polarized the South American OPEC nation.
Tens of thousands of ecstatic supporters thronged the streets around the presidential palace in downtown Caracas, pumping fists in the air and shouting Chavez’s name after the former soldier beat opposition Venezuelan presidential candidate Henrique Capriles by more than 9 percentage points.
The new six-year term will let Chavez consolidate his control over Venezuela’s economy, possibly by extending a wave of nationalizations, and continue his support for left-wing allies in Latin America and around the world.
“Truthfully, this has been the perfect battle, a democratic battle,” Chavez thundered from the balcony of the palace late on Sunday, holding up a replica of the sword of independence hero Simon Bolivar. “Venezuela will continue along the path of democratic and Bolivarian socialism of the 21st century.”
It was an extraordinary victory for a leader who just a few months ago feared for his life as he struggled to recover from cancer. He won 54.4 percent of the vote, with 90 percent of the ballots counted, compared with 45 percent for Capriles.
More than 80 percent of registered voters cast ballots.
Supporters dripping with sweat strained to catch a glimpse of Chavez from the street below the palace while dancing and drinking rum.
“Chavez, the people are with you,” they chanted.
The victory was considerably slimmer than his win by 25 percentage points in 2006, reflecting growing frustration at his failure to fix problems such as crime, blackouts and corruption.
In a nod to those complaints, Chavez said he would be more focused in his new term beginning on Jan. 10.
“Today, we start a new cycle of government, in which we must respond with greater efficacy and efficiency to the needs of our people,” he said. “I promise you I’ll be a better president.”
A retired lieutenant colonel who first won fame with a failed 1992 coup, Chavez has become Latin America’s main anti-US agitator, criticizing Washington, while getting close to its adversaries, including Cuba, Syria and Iran.
A decade-long oil boom has given him tens of billions of dollars for social investments that range from free health clinics to newly built apartment complexes, helping him build a strong following among the poor. Following his victory on Sunday, Chavez could order new nationalizations in some largely untouched corners of the economy, including the banking, food and health industries. He took advantage of his landslide win in 2006 to order takeovers in the telecoms, electricity and oil sectors.
However, any recurrence of the cancer that has already forced him to undergo three operations in Havana since June last year could derail his plans.
Opposition leaders were crushed by the loss. It followed nearly a month of euphoria among Capriles supporters as the 40-year-old polished his stump speeches, held increasingly fervent rallies and appeared be to gaining ground in the polls.
The youthful state governor put on a brave face, hailing his “house-by-house” campaign as the start of a long road to changing the direction of the country.