AP - President Hugo Chavez held on to a congressional majority in Venezuela’s elections, but his opponents made gains that could help them challenge his grip on power.
With the vast majority of votes counted, Chavez’s socialist party won at least 90 of the 165 seats in the National Assembly, while the opposition coalition won at least 59 seats, National Electoral Council president Tibisay Lucena said early Monday.
She said other seats either went to a small splinter party or had not yet been determined. The initial count was announced eight hours after the close of Sunday’s voting because there were a number of close races, Lucena said.
The opposition had demanded that electoral authorities release the results after an hours-long wait that put the country on edge.
Ramon Guillermo Aveledo, leader of the opposition coalition, called the delayed results “inadmissible.” He said that according to the opposition’s tally, anti-Chavez candidates had garnered more than half the popular vote.
Before the vote, the opposition had criticized an election law passed by Chavez’s allies that redrew some legislative districts and gave greater weight to votes in rural areas, where the president remains more popular. Opposition candidates agreed to participate in the elections and respect the results as long as the vote count was transparent.
Aveledo said the areas where the electoral council didn’t release results were dominated by the opposition, and he demanded electoral authorities give details on those results before dawn.
The opposition, which boycotted the last legislative elections in 2005, dramatically increased its representation beyond the 11 or so lawmakers who defected from Chavez’s camp in the current National Assembly.
Chavez’s opponents achieved their goal of preventing Chavez’s allies from obtaining at least a two-thirds majority of the 165 seats _ a threshold at which pro-Chavez lawmakers have been able to rewrite laws unopposed and unilaterally appoint officials including Supreme Court justices and members of the electoral council.
Aveledo warned that the existing “moribund” pro-Chavez legislature shouldn’t try push through radical legislation before newly elected lawmakers take their posts at the beginning of 2011.
Many Venezuelans were asking why it took so long to release the results. Chavez had said after casting his ballot that he expected results from the automated vote system to be available before midnight, but they weren’t released until after 2 a.m.
Voters stood in long lines at polling stations during the elections, which stirred strong sentiment on both sides of Venezuela’s deep political divide.
Opposition parties were trying to end Chavez’s monopoly of power of the National Assembly for the first time in his nearly 12-year presidency. The vote was also seen as a referendum on Chavez himself ahead of the next presidential election in 2012.
Opposition candidates called the vote a crucial opportunity to defend democratic principles and freedoms, saying the National Assembly has been simply taking orders from Chavez for five years.
“Democracy is at stake,” said Teresa Bermudez, a 63-year-old Chavez opponent who stood in a long line waiting to vote in Caracas. She said she saw the vote as a vital chance for the opposition to have a voice and achieve a more balanced legislature.
Chavez has fashioned himself as a revolutionary-turned-president, carrying on the legacy of his mentor Fidel Castro, with a nationalist vision and a deep-seated antagonism toward the U.S. government. He has largely funded his government with Venezuela’s ample oil wealth, touting social programs targeted to his support base.
Polls suggest Chavez remains the most popular politician in Venezuela, yet surveys also have shown a decline in his popularity in the past two years as disenchantment has grown over problems including rampant violent crime, poorly administered public services and inflation now hovering at 30 percent.
During the campaign, Chavez had portrayed the vote as a choice between his “Bolivarian Revolution” and opposition politicians he accuses of serving the interests of the wealthy and his adversaries in the U.S. government.
Chavez also pitched his allies like a salesman, offering Venezuelans new, low-interest credit cards and discounted appliances from washing machines to TV sets. The government’s “Good Life Card,” which has yet to be widely distributed, is to be good for purchases at state-run stores and for travel, and the government has started a program offering cheap appliances imported from China.
“We’re with this man because this man is the one who has really done things for this country,” said Carmen Elena Flores de Cordova, a 58-year-old lawyer who dressed in signature Chavez red to vote. She pointed to government projects in the neighborhood as proof of progress: a new low-income apartment building and cable cars running up into a hillside slum.
Chavez’s party mounted an aggressive get-out-the-vote campaign. In Caracas, voters were awakened before dawn by fireworks and recorded bugles blaring reveille from speakers. In online posts on Twitter, Chavez called for supporters to turn out and urged them to “sustain the MASSIVE ATTACK!!”