CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelans awakened today to the prospect of another six years under President Hugo Chavez as the leftist president’s supporters celebrated his victory against a youthful rival and a galvanized opposition pledged to build on its gains.
Chavez emerged from Sunday’s vote both strengthened and sobered, having reconfirmed his masterful political touch but also winning by his tightest margin yet. Challenger Henrique Capriles said while conceding defeat that his campaign had launched a new political force and that he would keep working for change.
The 58-year-old leader now has a freer hand to push for an even bigger state role in the economy and deepen friendships with U.S. rivals. Meanwhile, he’s under pressure to address nuts-and-bolts governance issues such as soaring crime rates, power blackouts and double-digit inflation.
With a turnout of 81 percent, Chavez only got 551,902 more votes this time around than he did six years ago, while the opposition boosted its tally by about 2.1 million. Chavez appeared to acknowledge the opposition’s growing clout during a boisterous victory speech late Sunday night.
“I extend from here my recognition of all who voted against us, recognition of their democratic weight,” he told thousands of cheering supporters from a balcony of the presidential palace after midnight.
Capriles, a former state governor, had accused the flamboyant incumbent of unfairly using Venezuela’s oil wealth to finance his campaign as well as flaunting his near-total control of state institutions.
Still, he accepted defeat as Chavez swept to a 10-point victory margin. The former army paratroop commander won nearly 55 percent of the vote against 45 percent for Capriles with more than 95 percent of the vote counted.
“It was the perfect battle!” Chavez told his supporters. The crowd responded with chants of “Chavez won’t go!”
Chavez spent heavily in the months before the vote, building public housing and bankrolling expanded social programs. With the largest proven oil reserves in the world, Venezuela has received hundreds of billions of petro-dollars over the past decade.
“I think he just cranked up the patronage machine and unleashed a spending orgy,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue think tank.
But Shifter also noted the affinity and gratefulness Venezuela’s poor feel for Chavez. “Despite his illness, I still think he retains a strong emotional connection with a lot of Venezuelans that I think were not prepared to vote against him.”
Perhaps the top question facing Chavez now is whether he has truly beat cancer, after having two rounds of surgery since June 2011 to remove tumors from his pelvic region as well as chemotherapy and radiation treatment. He has said his most recent tests showed no sign of illness. Venezuela would have to hold a new election if Chavez were forced to step down during the first years of his term.
Without referring to his illness, Chavez said in his victory speech: “I ask God to give me life and health to keep serving the Venezuelan people, more and better every day!”