CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Allies of cancer-stricken President Hugo Chavez steamrolled Venezuela's opposition in gubernatorial elections, winning 20 of 23 states. The only good news for the opposition was the re-election of its top leader, Henrique Capriles, who lost to Chavez in October's presidential vote.
Sunday's vote came less than a week after Venezuela's leftist president was operated on in Cuba for the fourth time for a stubborn cancer that many fear he won't beat. It was widely seen as a referendum on whether his socialist-inspired Bolivarian Revolution movement has enough momentum to outlive him.
Capriles' win sets him up as the presumed challenger to go up against Vice President Nicolas Maduro, Chavez's hand-picked successor in presidential elections that would be held within 30 days of the president's death or separation from office.
"It really does underscore the fact that Chavismo really can survive, at least at the regional level, without Chavez," said Miguel Tinker Salas, a Latin American studies professor at Pomona College in Claremont, California.
"The reality is that the Chavistas today proved that their movement is institutionalized enough to sustain itself and to win statehouses in almost 90 percent of Venezuela."
The vote was the first in Chavez's nearly 14-year-old presidency in which he has been unable to actively campaign. He hasn't spoken publicly since Tuesday's surgery.
Jorge Rodriguez, campaign manager for the pro-Chavez camp, hailed the victory saying it represented "the map painted red" — the color of Chavez's socialist party.
The strong showing could give the president's confidants a freer hand to deepen his socialist policies, including a drive to fortify grass-roots citizen councils that are directly funded by the central government.
The loss of ground by anti-Chavez candidates raises tough questions for the opposition. It lost five of its governorships, including the country's most populous state, Zulia, an important center of the oil industry that is Venezuela's economic lifeblood.
Capriles' beat former Vice President Elias Jaua in the nation's second most populous state, Miranda, and his win will allow him to cement his position as the country's dominant opposition leader. His supporters celebrated shouting with their hands in the air while fireworks exploded overhead.
Capriles told supporters in a victory speech that "it's difficult to come here and show a smile."
"This is a difficult moment, but in every difficult moment opportunities emerge," Capriles said, wearing a track suit emblazoned with the yellow, blue and red of the Venezuelan flag. "We have to strengthen ourselves more."
The 53 percent voter turnout was considerably lower than the more than 80 percent who cast ballots in October's presidential vote, when Chavez won another six-year term. Some said the closeness of the vote to Christmas and apparent apathy among some voters contributed to the relatively low turnout.
"It seems like people are more interested in getting ready for Christmas than anything else," said Ricardo Mendez, a bus driver who voted for Jaua.
Chavez's political allies had framed the elections as a referendum on his legacy, urging people to dedicate the vote to the president. Banners went up on lampposts ahead of the vote reading "Now more than ever, with Chavez."