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Venezuelans voted heavily for Chávez allies in regional elections

Venezuela’s ruling party had vowed to sweep the nation’s key governors’ race as a tribute to their stricken leader President Hugo Chávez who is convalescing in a Cuban hospital.

On Sunday, it made good on that promise, winning 20 of 23 states and punching into opposition strongholds, according to preliminary results.

“Chavismo, the force of the nation, won a crushing majority,” said Jorge Rodriguez, the head of the national campaign for the ruling Unified Socialist Party of Venezuela. “This is a victory for all of Venezuela but particularly a victory for Chávez.”

But there were some bright spots for the battered opposition. Henrique Capriles, the 40-year-old governor of Miranda state, won reelection in a critical race that may give him a second-shot at leading the country.

After losing the presidential race to Chávez in October, Capriles had been fighting to keep his job as head of Venezuela’s most populous state and cement his position as standard bearer of the opposition.

Capriles won Miranda with 50 percent of the vote to former Vice President Elías Jaua’s 42 percent, the National Election Council said Sunday.

That race became critical last week, when Chávez traveled to Cuba to undergo a fourth-round of surgery for an undisclosed form of cancer. If he’s unable to assume a new term Jan. 10 — and some in his cabinet have suggested that might be the case — it would trigger elections within 30 days. Capriles’ win likely guarantees him a slot on an eventual ballot, analysts said.

“We survived a tsunami,” said Miguel Pizzaro, 24, a Capriles campaign organizer. “We have to continue working in this fight, the worst thing we can do is belive that it’s not worth continuing.”

Other opposition wins came in Amazonas state and Lara, where Henry Falcón, a one-time Chavista, was reelected.

But the night belonged to Chávez’s followers. In one of the biggest blows to the opposition, the PSUV captured oil–rich Zulia, where Pablo Pérez is governor. Pérez — who was the runner-up in the opposition’s presidential primary in February — was defeated by Francisco Arias Cárdenas, a former military officer who participated in an attempted 1992 coup with Chávez.

The vote comes after Chávez underwent a “complex and difficult” surgery Tuesday and suffered hemorrhaging during the procedure. On Sunday, officials said he was alert and recovering.

Vice President Nicolás Maduro said Chávez had been communicating with his cabinet and was being informed “step by step of everything that is going on both economically and politically.”

“We are not going to let the comandante down,” Maduro said as he urged followers to hit the polls. “Today is a day where the entire nation will ratify its love for the country.”

Maduro’s statements drew rebukes from the election authorities and members of the opposition who said his pro-government speech was in violation of campaign laws.

But officials said Sunday’s vote had been largely peaceful and smooth running. About 53.4 percent of registered voters went to the polls, the CNE said. During the presidential race, 80 percent of registered voters turned out.

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.