CARACAS -- The streets of the capital are still littered with campaign flyers and posters, but the winners and losers of the intense presidential battle are already looking toward regional elections in December and how the president’s tenuous health might affect the next six years.
President Hugo Chávez, the 58-year-old former military officer and South American socialist, won his fourth consecutive presidential bid Sunday and shows no signs of ballot fatigue.
With 97 percent of the vote tallied Monday, the National Election Council said Chávez had won 7.963 million votes, or 55 percent. His rival, former Miranda Gov. Henrique Capriles, won 6.426 million votes or 44 percent. The opposition said it is auditing the vote but not questioning the outcome.
The election had one of the highest turnouts in Venezuelan history and was a sobering loss for an opposition that had hoped that a unified front and one of the most energetic and disciplined campaigns in recent history might unseat the former military officer.
On Monday, Antonio Batista, 81, a Portuguese immigrant who arrived in Venezuela 62 years ago, was standing in the shade of a tree and telling a neighbor that he didn’t see how the opposition could ever win at the ballot box.
Batista, who voted for Capriles, said Chávez has an almost mystical power over his followers.
“While Chávez is here, the opposition will never win,” he said. “He’s an idol. Not even Obama could beat him. If [John F.] Kennedy were alive, he couldn’t even beat Chávez.”
The president, in office since 1999, has hailed the victory as an endorsement of his socialist policies that have made him a hero to the poor but put him at odds with the private sector and the United States. Over the last decade, his administration has used the country’s vast oil wealth to finance its social “missions,” including free housing and healthcare, and cash payments to the elderly.
While the government sees the programs as a way to redistribute wealth, the opposition views them as an attempt to buy voters.
During this campaign, the government said it would provide free or deeply subsidized housing to more than 3 million families.
The government has “an excess of resources but a deficit in scruples,” the head of the opposition coalition Ramon Aveledo said Monday. “the vote was free but not clean.”
Rolando Rivas, 28, was given the keys to his government-provided apartment on Tuesday — five days before the vote.
On Monday, he was hauling buckets of water to his apartment because the whitewashed high-rise near Sabana Grande doesn’t yet have plumbing.
In two years, the government will tell Rivas the price-tag, but he said he’s been assured it will be low and spread over 30 years. Rivas, a radiologist, said he was worried that a win by Capriles might jeopardize that arrangement.
“But we were convinced that Chávez was going to win so we weren’t too worried about it,” he said.
Chávez’s appeal, however, goes beyond handouts and extends beyond the poor.
Ibrahim Hazkour, 47, an archivist at the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela, said Chávez’s emphasis on building regional ties beyond the United States appealed to him. He also blamed Capriles for not effectively communicating his platform. Instead, the candidate spent much of his time trying to convince Chavistas that he wouldn’t take away the missions or undo the socialist reforms, Hazkour said.