Chavez wins third re-election in tightest race yet
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — President Hugo Chavez won re-election and a new endorsement of his socialist project Sunday, surviving his closest race yet after a bitter campaign in which the opposition accused him of unfairly using Venezuela's oil wealth and his near total control of state institutions to his advantage.
A long wait for the results produced high tensions, including a Twitter hashtag called BitingNails that became the most popular in the country. Finally, fireworks exploded over downtown Caracas amid a cacophony of horn-honking by elated Chavez supporters waving flags and jumping for joy outside the presidential palace.
With 90 per cent of votes counted, Chavez had more than 54 per cent of the vote to 45 per cent for challenger Henrique Capriles, an athletic 40-year-old former state governor who unified and energised the opposition while barnstorming across the oil-exporting nation.
But Capriles' promises to seriously address violent crime that has spun out of control, streamline a patronage-bloated bureaucracy and end rampant corruption proved inadequate against Chavez's charisma, well-oiled political machine and a legacy of putting Venezuela's poor first with generous social welfare programmes.
Chavez rallied thousands of supporters from a balcony of the presidential palace, holding up a sword that once belonged to 19th century independence hero Simon Bolivar.
"The revolution has triumphed!" Chavez told the crowd, saying his supporters "voted for socialism."
The crowd responded chanting "Chavez won't go!"
Chavez will now have a freer hand to push for an even bigger state role in the economy and continue populist programmes. He pledged before the vote to make a stronger push for socialism in the next term. He's also likely to further limit dissent and deepen friendships with US rivals.
A Capriles victory would have brought a radical foreign policy shift including a halt to preferential oil deals with allies such as Cuba, along with a loosening of state economic controls and an increase in private investment.
It was Chavez's third re-election in nearly 14 years in office. It was also his smallest victory margin. In 2006, he won by 27 percentage points.
"I can't describe the relief and happiness I feel right now," said Edgar Gonzalez, a 38-year-old construction worker.
He ran through crowds of Chavez supporters packing the streets around the presidential palace wearing a Venezuelan flag as a cape and yelling: "Oh, no! Chavez won't go!"
"The revolution will continue, thanks to God and the people of this great country," said Gonzalez.
Voter turnout was an impressive 81 per cent, compared to 75 per cent in 2006. Chavez paid close attention to his military-like get-out-the-vote organisation at the grass roots, stressing its importance at campaign rallies. The opposition said he unfairly plowed millions in state funds into the effort.
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