The stakes were particularly high for Capriles. Analysts said that if he had lost the governors’ race, he would have also lost his shot at the presidency.
But Capriles now has a track record of besting Chávez’s hand-picked challengers. In 2008 he beat Diosdado Cabello, also a former vice president who is now president of the National Assembly, for the governor’s post.
On Sunday night, Capriles told the crowd to keep the faith and that the dream of winning the presidency was “right around the corner.”
“Our fight not only has to go on but has to strengthen,” he said. “We have to reach that day when we defeat their abuse of power.”
The mood was in stark contrast to earlier in the day when an anemic turnout seemed to confirm fears that the opposition was too beaten down to put up a fight.
“There are 16,000 [registered] voters in this neighborhood, and there’s nobody here today,” said Luis Moran, 65 a retired lawyer, who was voting in the Miranda suburb of Chacao, an opposition stronghold. “God willing, Capriles won’t lose, but if things continue like they are now, he will.”
In Petare, a working class neighborhood in Miranda state, where Capriles’s rival Jaua was voting, crowds cheered on the candidate.
Carmela Vitoria, a 54-year-old seamstress, said she was voting for Jaua because he had Chávez’s backing.
“We need unity between our governor and the president, someone who will work with the president,” she said. “The current governor just criticizes the president; he’s worthless.”
But for many in this nation of 28 million, Sunday’s election had more to do with supporting their ailing leader than regional issues.
“The President has helped us so much, we have to help him now while he’s recuperating and support his candidates,” said Vanesa Delgado, 27, a university student who was voting in Petare. “We have to be grateful.”
Miami Herald Staff Writer Jim Wyss reported from Bogotá. Special Correspondent Andrew Rosati reported from Caracas.