CARACAS – Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez pledged to deepen his socialist revolution after a comfortable election victory that could extend his divisive leadership of the OPEC nation to two decades.
The new six-year term clears the way for Chavez to consolidate state control over Venezuela’s economy, possibly with more nationalisations, and continue his support for left-wing allies in Latin America and around the world.
The victory also cements his status as a dominant figure in modern Latin American history and an icon of the political left. But the slimmer margin of victory – 10 percentage points, down from 25 points in 2006 – reflected growing frustration among Venezuelans at day-to-day problems such as crime and blackouts, which Chavez will be under pressure to tackle.
Tens of thousands of ecstatic supporters celebrated in the streets around the presidential palace in downtown Caracas overnight, pumping fists in the air after the former soldier was re-elected with 1.5 million more votes than younger rival Henrique Capriles.
“This has been the perfect battle, a democratic battle,” the 58-year-old Chavez thundered from the palace balcony around midnight, holding up a replica of the sword of independence hero Simon Bolivar.
“Venezuela will continue along the path of democratic and Bolivarian socialism of the 21st century.”
It was an extraordinary victory for a leader who just a few months ago feared for his life as he struggled to recover from cancer. Turnout was a record 80 per cent of registered voters, boosting Chavez’s democratic credentials despite critics’ depiction of him as an autocrat who tramples on private enterprise and silences political foes.
Supporters dripping with sweat strained to catch a glimpse of Chavez from the street below the palace while dancing and drinking rum. “Chavez, the people are with you!” they chanted.
“He will keep protecting the poor, the defenseless and the elderly,” said teacher Gladys Montijo, 54, weeping with joy.
In a nod to the opposition’s strong showing, Chavez struck a conciliatory note and promised to be more focused in his new term beginning on January 10.
“Today we start a new cycle of government, in which we must respond with greater efficacy and efficiency to the needs of our people,” he said. “I promise you I’ll be a better president.”
Despite Chavez’s anti-capitalist rhetoric, Venezuelan bonds are among the most-traded emerging market debt on Wall Street because they offer high yields. But Chavez’s victory pushed prices lower on Monday as investors unwound bets that Capriles would pull off an upset. (Reuters)