Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez’s opponents have blocked him from capturing an overwhelming majority in congressional elections, making gains that could challenge his tight grip on power.
With the vast majority of votes from yesterday counted, Mr Chavez’s socialist party won at least 96 of the 165 seats in the National Assembly, while the opposition coalition won at least 61 seats.
The remaining eight seats either went to a small splinter party or had not yet been decided.
Mr Chavez hailed it as a “solid victory”, but he fell short of his goal of keeping the two-thirds majority that has allowed his allies to push through controversial changes unopposed.
Until now, pro-Chavez politicians have been able to rewrite laws unopposed and unilaterally appoint officials, including Supreme Court judges and members of the electoral council.
Opposition leaders celebrated at the coalition’s headquarters in Caracas, where they hugged and kissed each other amid smiling supporters.
In the western state of Zulia, where the opposition won 12 of the 15 posts, Governor Pablo Perez attributed the gains to the coalition’s decision to field a single candidate for each of the 165 seats being contested.
“We showed Venezuela that we can advance if we’re united,” he said.
However the opposition lacks a strong presence in many of the rural states where Mr Chavez remains most popular, making it more difficult for government foes to win strong backing for a presidential candidate within two years.
Polls suggest Mr Chavez remains the most popular politician in Venezuela, yet surveys also have shown a decline in his popularity in the past two years as disenchantment has grown over the nation’s persisting domestic problems.
The opposition, which boycotted the last legislative elections in 2005, dramatically increased its representation beyond the dozen or so lawmakers who defected from Mr Chavez’s camp in the current National Assembly.
The opposition’s goal was to win a majority of the assembly’s seats. Even though they fell short, they will be able to put some constraints on Mr Chavez’s lawmaking power because they prevented his allies from winning a two-thirds majority.
Ramon Guillermo Aveledo, leader of the opposition coalition, criticised an election law passed by Mr Chavez’s allies that redrew some legislative districts and gave greater weight to votes in rural areas, where the president remains more popular. Opposition candidates agreed to participate in the elections and respect the results as long as the vote count was transparent.
Since he was first elected in 1998, Mr Chavez has fashioned himself as a revolutionary-turned-president, carrying on the legacy of his mentor Fidel Castro, with a nationalist vision and a deep-seated antagonism toward the US government. He has largely funded his government with Venezuela’s ample oil wealth, touting social programmes targeted to his support base.
During the campaign, Mr Chavez had portrayed the vote as a choice between his “Bolivarian Revolution” and opposition politicians he accuses of serving the interests of the wealthy and his adversaries in the US government.