By FRANK BAJAK and IAN JAMES | AP | OCTOBER 8, 2012
President Hugo Chavez put to rest any doubts about his masterful political touch in winning a third consecutive six-year term after a bitterly fought race against a youthful rival who has galvanized Venezuela’s opposition.
The state governor who lost Sunday’s presidential vote, Henrique Capriles, 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 smallest yet for him a presidential race. This time, the former army paratroop commander won 55 percent of the vote against 45 percent for Capriles with more than 90 percent of the vote counted.
Chavez will now have a freer hand to push for an even bigger state role in the economy, as he pledged during the campaign, and to continue populist programs. He’s also likely to further limit dissent and deepen friendships with U.S. rivals.
Chavez spent heavily in the months before the vote, building public housing and bankrolling expanded social programs.
“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.”
“They still think that he’s trying hard even if he’s not delivering what he promised, that he still has their best interests at heart,” Shifter said. “That’s the political skill that he has. He hasn’t lost that touch.”
Chavez spoke little during the campaign about his fight with cancer, which since June 2011 has included surgery 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.
Tensions were high Sunday night as announcement of the results were delayed.
Finally, fireworks exploded over downtown Caracas amid a cacophony of horn-honking by elated Chavez supporters waving flags and jumping for joy outside the presidential palace.
“I can’t describe the relief and happiness I feel right now,” said Edgar Gonzalez, a 38-year-old construction worker.
He ran through crowds of Chavez supporters packing the streets around the presidential palace wearing a Venezuelan flag as a cape and yelling: “Oh, no! Chavez won’t go!”
“It’s time now to sweep away the squalid ones,” said another elated supporter, Ignacio Gonzalez, using a description of the opposition Chavez employed during campaigning.
“It’s time to get them out of governor’s and mayor’s offices. The next battle is in December,” when state and municipal elections will be held, added the 25-year-old student, who wore a red shirt that wedded the images of Chavez, Jesus Christ and South American independence hero Simon Bolivar.
Capriles posed the strongest challenge yet to Chavez, who won by a 27-point margin in 2006 and by 16 points when he was first elected in 1998.
“I will continue working to build one country,” said the wiry, 40-year-old grandson of Holocaust survivors who unified and energized the opposition while barnstorming across the country.
He said in his concession speech that he rejects the idea of two Venezuelas divided by ideology and class.
Capriles had vowed to address violent crime that has spun out of control, streamline a patronage-bloated bureaucracy and end rampant corruption, but his promises proved inadequate against Chavez’s charisma, well-oiled political machine and legacy of putting Venezuela’s poor first with generous social welfare programs.
Yet 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 2.09 million. Chavez appeared to acknowledge the opposition’s growing clout.
“I extend from here my recognition of all who voted against us, recognition of their democratic weight,” he told thousands of cheering supporters from the balcony of the Miraflores presidential palace.