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Venezuela picks over the political battlefield after Chávez victory

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.

“He imitated Chávez a lot, and why? Because he didn’t have any ideas of his own,” he said. “If the president wiped his nose with his arm then [Capriles] wiped his nose with his arm.”

But there’s no denying that Capriles struck a chord as he barnstormed the nation, meeting voters and pledging to help the nation overcome its political divides.

While he lost the race, he won 2.4 million votes more than opposition challenger Manuel Rosales managed to muster against Chávez in 2006.

“The opposition kind of recovered its leadership,” said Russ Dallen, the managing partner of Caracas Capital Markets.

“Facing a very biased situation, with the government holding all the money and pretty much all the cards, Capriles’ on-the-ground, face-to-face campaign really resonated with voters,” Dallen said. And he won almost half the votes “which is quite an accomplishment.”

The campaign was full of vitriol and Chávez called Capriles everything from “pig” to “mediocre boot-licker,” but never by name.

But on Monday, Chávez telephoned his defeated rival.

“Believe it: I’ve had a pleasant conversation with Henrique Capriles!!” he wrote on Twitter. He also called for national unity.

White House Spokesman Jay Carney congratulated the country for holding peaceful elections.

“We have our differences with President Chávez,” he said. “But we congratulate the Venezuelan people.”

U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen R-FL, called Chávez’s election “unfortunate.”

“Chávez has denied access to international election monitors, employed last-minute ballot changes, controlled the judicial system, harassed independent journalists, and consolidated his power to manipulate the vote in his favor,” she said in a statement. “The United States and responsible nations must remain steadfast in our defense of democracy and freedom and not bow to Chávez’s tyranny.”

The opposition will have a chance to flex its muscle again starting in December when it faces regional and municipal elections. While Chávez won 20 out of 23 states in the election, his personal charisma hasn’t rubbed off on his party members in the past.

Michael Rowan, a long-time political consultant who was a strategist for the Rosales campaign in 2006, predicted that the opposition would win most of the races because “Chávez’s money won’t be there and his name won’t be on the ballot and that makes a huge difference.”

Chávez popularity is also his weak point. Fourteen years into his administration, there is still not a clear successor. On Sunday, when pressed about who he might pass the torch to, he cited the names of half his cabinet and then said that the future leadership would be “a collective.”

Some speculate that Chávez might want to follow the Cuban model and pass the presidency to his brother and Barinas Gov. Adán Chávez.

“Chávez is a brand and has done great as a brand,” Dallen said. “So the best guarantee of the Chávez brand is another Chávez.”

The current constitution prohibits blood relations from occupying the nation’s two top spots. It also calls for immediate elections if the president dies within the first four years of his administration. To change those rules would require a constitutional assembly or a referendum, neither of which is likely in the polarized environment, Dallen said.

But Armando Duran, a former foreign minister, predicted Chávez will try to do just that, so he can ensure his vice presidential pick can succeed him immediately.

Duran also blamed the opposition for trying to take on Chávez as if the playing field were level.

“They don’t understand that we’re not in a democratic regime,” he said of the opposition.

The succession issue is even more pressing due to Chávez’s El Comandante’s health. The president claims to have beaten an undisclosed form of cancer that has forced him to undergo chemotherapy, radiation and at least three surgeries in the last 16 months.

For the better part of the campaign, he stayed close to Caracas in tightly scripted events, which fueled speculation that he might not be doing as well as he lets on.

On Sunday night, during his acceptance speech, he asked God for health twice.

“My God, keep giving us life and health to keep building this good nation…this socialist nation,” he said.

If God grants that wish, he will have stayed in office 20 years, more than any other elected Venezuelan leader.

El Nuevo Herald Staff Writer Juan Tamayo contributed to this report

The original article did not include “elected” in the final sentence. Military Gen. Juan Vicente Gómez seized power in a coup in 1908 and ruled either as president or through puppets for 27 years.