Hugo Chavez allies score big wins in Venezuela elections

CARACAS — President Hugo Chavez's candidates won a majority of the governor's elections in Venezuela on Sunday, but opposition forces could point to gains with victories in several major states as well as the capital city, Caracas.

Both sides declared victory.

"The people are telling me, 'Chavez, continue down the same road, the road of socialism,' " Chavez said early Monday just after the main results were announced.

But he also acknolwedged the opposition's advance. "We have to carry out a self-criticism where that's necessary.

The stakes were high because the election results will determine Chavez's next moves at home and abroad.

Chavez's gubernatorial candidates won 17 of the 22 states, according to the state election board. The opposition held onto Zulia and Nueva Espartaand took control of Miranda, Carabobo, Tachira and metropolitan Caracas, where Antonio Ledezma is the new mayor.

Chavez can claim satisfaction because his older brother, Adan, won a tight race to be the new governor in their home state, Barinas. Their father is the outgoing governor.

The opposition was hopeful that it would win Carabobo and Tachira, the two other states whose results remained in doubt early Monday morning.

Chavez's party won all but two of the the governor's races contested in 2004, so while he won most of the races on Sunday, the opposition parties gained ground, particularly in the country's biggest states.

Chavez had signaled that he wanted a mandate Sunday to seek public approval early next year to abolish term limits so he can seek another six-year term in 2012. He lost a similar referendum one year ago, his only electoral defeat in 10 years as president.

Chavez also wanted a mandate to further his ''21st Century Socialist Revolution'' so he can nationalize more companies and gain more political power for both himself and his followers so they can rule as they see fit.

Charismatic and constantly preaching his solidarity with the poor, Chavez enjoyed a 57 percent approval rating in October in one poll and had bet that his popularity would pull his candidates to victory.

Chavez also wanted to fortify his role as Latin America's most powerful leader in the post-Castro era. As a measure of this, he will host Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Caracas on Wednesday in a meeting of two oil-rich nations that have testy relations with the United States.

Opposition forces wanted to build upon last year's victory to thwart Chávez's grand ambitions.

Chavez crisscrossed Venezuela over the past two months, using the full force of his government to push for his 22 candidates for governor and 328 candidates for mayor.

State television and radio stations broadcast pro-Chavez ads, and government officials handed out free refrigerators, washing machines and mattresses in poor neighborhoods.

The race in the western plains state of Barinas was important symbolically.

Chavez's father had been governor for 10 years. Two of his brothers hold public jobs in Barinas while two others have contracts to do business with the state.

Accusations that the Chavez family during its 10 years in power has built mansions and bought ranches had given Barinas Mayor Julio Cesar Reyes a fighting chance to defeat Adan Chavez and inflict an embarrassing defeat for President Chavez.

Besides the victory in Barinas, Chavez had to be cheered Monday by the news that his ex-wife Marisabel Rodriguez lost badly in her bid to be elected mayor of Barquisimeto, a city in western Venezuela. The former first lady ran as a strong critic of the president.

But a former Chavez minister lost in Sucre, a sprawling slum district in Metropolitan Caracas. Opposition candidate Carlos Ocariz was the winner.

In the Sucre neighborhood of Petare, two dozen pro-Chavez voters didn't identify Chacon by name when asked whom they supported.

''For the revolutionary process,'' said Yumelis Montano, a 47-year-old seamstress, ''it is going well.'' Montano, like virtually all the other pro-Chavez voters, cited government assistance in explaining her vote. Montaño has received free medicine from Cuban doctors who work in poor neighborhoods in a program created by Chavez's close relationship with Cuba.

Wendys Bello, 33, voted for the government candidates because she credited Chavez with allowing her to get her high school degree next month in one of the government's free educational programs known as ''missions.'' Dixia Nava, 48, favored Chavez's candidates because of government grocery stores in poor neighborhoods that allow her to buy food at a deep discount.

Jorge Padilla, a 40-year-old house painter, voted for Chavez's candidates because Chavez gave citizenship to thousands of illegal Colombian immigrants in Venezuela, like himself.

But many other people at this voting station in Petare favored opposition candidate Ocariz, a former congressman, because of skyrocketing crime.

Jhon Saez was robbed of $5,000 by a man who shoved a gun in his bank as he left a bank 10 days ago.

Alberto Flores was held up by a gun-wielding assailant outside his home on Wednesday and lost $200.

''Chavez doesn't care about the crime problem,'' Flores said. At a more upscale Caracas neighborhood, Magaly Rodriguez, a retired government worker, called Chavez a ''demagogue, a liar, a person taking us backward,'' when she explained why she voted for the opposition slate.

Venezuelans voted on touch screen machines. Each person had up to six minutes to vote. After voting, each person dipped their right pinkie in an inkwell to prevent voting a second time.