Chavez allies sweep Venezuela vote, but Capriles holds seat

Sun Dec 16, 2012 11:09pm EST
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By Brian Ellsworth and Marianna Parraga

CARACAS (Reuters) - Allies of cancer-stricken President Hugo Chavez swept to victory by taking nearly all of Venezuela's 23 states in elections on Sunday, but Henrique Capriles consolidated his position as top opposition leader by winning re-election as governor.

Capriles, the 40-year-old governor of Miranda, beat Chavez's former vice president Elias Jaua to retain control of the country's second-most populous state, leaving him as candidate-in-waiting if Chavez's ill health forces him aside.

The ruling Socialist Party, however, extended its control over the South American OPEC nation, snatching four states from the opposition to win 20 of the 23 states.

Possibly benefiting from a wave of sympathy over Chavez's battle to recover from cancer surgery, it staged several upsets, including a victory in the most populous state of Zulia.

The youthful Capriles' re-election will help maintain unity among the historically fractured opposition in a potential election against Vice President Nicolas Maduro, Chavez's anointed successor.

Though his supporters whooped for joy, the subdued tone of Capriles' victory speech and long faces of some in his campaign team reflected the reality of the drubbing the opposition took.

"I'm happy for Miranda, but not for our Venezuela," Capriles said, accusing Socialist Party candidates of bolstering their showing by offering handouts to voters and exploiting Chavez's illness. "The day must come when we defeat this abuse of power."

Capriles won by just four percentage points, lower than his camp and most analysts had predicted.   Continued...

Miranda state Governor Henrique Capriles speaks during a news conference after being re-elected during Venezuela's regional elections in Caracas December 16, 2012. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins