Venezuela's opposition leaders are ecstatic about the results of Sunday's legislative elections, which dealt a heavy blow to President Hugo Chavez. But they should get ready for Chavez's counter-attack. It will come soon, and it will be nasty.
Judging from what I hear from former close Chavez aides and other well-placed analysts, he is likely to circumvent the results of Sunday's vote by pulling several tricks to consolidate his powers ahead of the 2012 presidential election.
On paper, Chavez won Sunday's election by obtaining 98 seats in the National Assembly, while the opposition won 65.
But according to opposition counts, anti-Chavez and independent candidates received 52 percent of the popular vote despite Chavez's massive use of government resources, virtual control of most electronic media and widespread intimidation.
"This will have a gigantic impact," anti-Chavez leader and congresswoman-elect Maria Corina Machado told me in a telephone interview. "What was at stake last Sunday was whether a terrified society that feared all kinds of punishments if it didn't vote for Chavez would overcome its fear. And people did overcome their fears!"
Opposition leaders stress that Chavez's 33-seat majority in the National Assembly will be exclusively due to rules that were heavily tilted to favor government candidates. Pro-Chavez states like Amazonas could elect one legislator with just 20,000 voters, while anti-Chavez states such as Zulia required 400,000 votes to elect one legislator.
Still, the opposition carried several former Chavez strongholds, including the Caracas district of Libertador, where the presidential palace is located. Nationally, Chavez got 5.4 million votes, way below the 7.3 million votes he received in the 2006 presidential elections and 17 percent fewer votes than he got in a 2009 referendum.
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