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Socialist party wins 17 states out of 22

The Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez hailed his party's majority victories in key polls, but recognised opposition gains.

The Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez speaks during a press conference after municipal election results were announced in Caracas today.
The Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez speaks during a press conference after municipal election results were announced in Caracas today.

The Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez today hailed his party's majority victories in key local polls but recognised opposition gains, in five states and the capital Caracas. A record of more than 65 per cent of 17 million eligible voters turned out to vote for governors, mayors and heads of regional councils in Sunday's polls. "Who can say there's a dictatorship in Venezuela?" Mr Chavez said, in a jab at his many critics.

"A new stage is beginning. For me, as the leader of the Venezuelan socialist project, the people are telling me: 'Chavez, keep on the same path,'" he said. The polls were seen as a test for Mr Chavez and his drive for nationalisation and social projects, amid growing discontent over escalating crime, corruption and inflation. Despite Chavista gains, the opposition also made important advances, keeping hold of two states and winning populous central Miranda, south-western Tachira and northern Carabobo, as well as the capital.

Candidates from Mr Chavez's socialist party won 17 states out of 22, first results showed, in the vote which came almost 10 years after he was first elected. Mr Chavez's candidates also won back three states previously held by dissidents from his party. The Venezuelan leader, a friend to Iran, Russia and Cuba's Fidel Castro, was expected to use the victory as a mandate to push for support to abolish term limits to try to win a third six-year term in 2012.

He crisscrossed the oil-rich South American country campaigning for his party's candidates, one year after his defeat in a referendum on extending his authority. Opposition groups joined together to increase their chances for victory, running single candidates in a majority of states and municipalities in their bid to block Mr Chavez's bid to extend his "21st century socialism." Fireworks popped in the early hours in the capital Caracas, where opposition candidate Antonio Ledezma won a surprise victory over the socialist party candidate, Aristobulo Isturiz.

"I dedicate this victory to the most humble," Mr Ledezma said, inviting Mr Chavez to work with him to "rescue" Caracas, one of the continent's most dangerous, traffic-choked cities. Famous for his fiery language, Mr Chavez, 54, had threatened to imprison opponents, or even send tanks onto the streets if his party lost in Carabobo. Around 300 candidates, mainly from the opposition, were prevented from running in the elections due to corruption allegations.

Mr Chavez vowed earlier on Sunday to press ahead with his socialist policies despite tumbling oil prices. Venezuelan crude prices fell this week to $40.68 (Dh146) per barrel, after floating above $120 in the middle of the year. In the capital's vast Petare slum, Maria Teresa Padron, 80, said she had voted for a candidate from Mr Chavez's party to show her support for the president. "God sent us Chavez. No one will give us the well-being this president offers us. No one took us into account before, but thanks to him, I live well now," Ms Padron said.

Another resident, Cesar Alberto, chose an opposition candidate to protest the current mayor. "The president came to support his candidates but not to see the problems here. There's rubbish, violence and a lack of water," he said, pointing to piles of rubbish. * AFP