President Hugo Chavez waves a Venezuelan flag as he greets supporters at the Miraflores presidential palace balcony in Caracas on Sunday. Chavez won re-election and a new endorsement of his socialist project Sunday, surviving his closest race yet after a bitter campaign against opposition candidate Henrique Capriles.
President Hugo Chavez waves a Venezuelan flag as he greets supporters at the Miraflores presidential palace balcony in Caracas on Sunday. Chavez won re-election and a new endorsement of his socialist project Sunday, surviving his closest race yet after a bitter campaign against opposition candidate Henrique Capriles. Fernando Llano/AP
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has beaten his most serious political challenge in years. He defeated a young former governor handily in Sunday's presidential election. With this victory, Chavez has another six years to consolidate his socialist system in the country with the world's largest oil reserves.
It was the toughest challenge to his rule that he'd received in years — a young, vigorous candidate whose election would have ended Chavez's self-proclaimed revolution.
But when the votes were counted Sunday night, Chavez had won with 54.4 percent of the vote to 44.9 percent for Henrique Capriles.
Shortly before midnight, Chavez led the throngs outside the presidential palace in singing the national anthem. He told them this was the beginning of his next term, which goes through 2018.
And the crowd responded with their signature chant: "Hey-Ho, Chavez won't go."
Speaking from a balcony, Chavez described his victory as the perfect battle: "We've shown comrades that our democracy is one of the world's best."
Henrique Capriles, 40, conceded soon after the voting results were issued. "I want to congratulate the president, send him our compliments," Capriles said.
The campaign, though, heavily favored Chavez. The president controls much of the televised airwaves in Venezuela, receiving ample positive coverage. He also controls billions in oil profits that were used for giveaways like new apartments and appliances.
What Capriles had going for him was his energy and his message — that the country was suffering from many problems that Chavez had not resolved since his rule began in 1999.
People were clearly excited about voting — and even applauded as polling stations opened, like this one in a leafy Caracas neighborhood.
"It has been 14 years of economical crisis, violence, crime, destruction of private industry, and I believe and I have complete certainty that if Capriles wins there is a way to reconstruct my country," said Fabiana Hernandez, who had come out to vote for Capriles.
It's true that polls showed that people across all economic classes are worried about high crime. And that blackouts and food shortages are also concerns.
But in the end, the results showed that Chavez retained enough of a loyal base – more than half of all voters. Those supporters are also willing to overlook that Chavez, 58, has been ill — recovering from a cancerous tumor the president says was removed earlier in the year.
Residents of poorer neighborhoods, like truck driver Javier Pinango, believe Chavez will deliver a better life for them.
"He's been doing it for 14 years," Pinango said. "There's no other option. There's no other candidate who can measure up."