CARACAS, Venezuela — President Hugo Chavez’s allies won a sweeping victory in Venezuela’s gubernatorial elections Sunday, capturing a large majority of states and showing their socialist party still has muscle even as cancer has put the socialist leader’s future in question.
The ruling party won at least 19 of 23 states, according to preliminary results. Opposition leader Henrique Capriles Radonski held on for a re-election win in Miranda state, one of three opposition candidates declared winners.
Chavez has vilified the United States and Israel, cozied up to Iran and the Palestinians, and helped create an atmosphere of acute discomfort for the country’s Jews. By some estimates, more than half of the Jews in Venezuela have emigrated since he came to power.
Capriles, on the other hand, is the Catholic grandson of Jewish Holocaust survivors. He has been quoted saying that “my mother’s four grandparents were murdered in Treblinka,” and that his grandmother, who was in the Warsaw Ghetto “taught me not to hate anyone.”
Capriles lost to Chavez in the country’s October election, and his re-election Sunday will allow him to cement his position as Venezuela’s dominant opposition leader, even as other opposition candidates floundered. But the loss of ground by the opposition also raises tough questions for government adversaries as they prepare for the possibility of new presidential elections if cancer cuts short Chavez’s tenure.
Going into the vote, the opposition had held the governorships in eight states, and it lost in five of those states according to the results announced by National Electoral Council President Tibisay Lucena.
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.
“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.”
He said he faulted the opposition for its lack of organization and lack of a clear message.
The vote was the first time in Chavez’s nearly 14-year-old presidency that he has been unable to actively campaign. He hasn’t spoken publicly since undergoing cancer surgery on Tuesday in Cuba.
Palestinian worshipers at Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity held a special prayer for the health of the Venezuelan president on Sunday.
Palestinian Tourism Minister Rula Maayah was among the participants. She said of Chavez, who is an outspoken supporter of Palestinian independence, “We hope he will recover soon.”
The strong showing by pro-Chavez candidates could help them deepen his socialist policies, including a drive to fortify grass-roots citizen councils that are directly funded by the central government.
Capriles beat Elias Jaua, Chavez’s former vice president, to win Miranda state, which includes part of the capital of Caracas. His supporters celebrated shouting with their hands in the air while fireworks exploded overhead.
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.
There were some complaints of improper campaigning during the vote. While voting was under way, Vice President Nicolas Maduro urged supporters to vote for Chavez’s allies, while opponents called his remarks a violation of electoral rules.
Speaking at a news conference, Maduro implored voters: “Let’s not fail Chavez.” He addressed those who hadn’t cast ballots yet, saying “let’s not make a bad impression with our commander Chavez.”
Opposition leader Ramon Guillermo Aveledo said his remarks violated a prohibition on campaigning on election day, and called for the National Electoral Council to take action. Vicente Diaz, a member of the council, called Maduro’s comments inappropriate and he would take up the matter with the council.
The elections were seen as an important dry run for new presidential elections if cancer prevents Chavez from continuing. His supporters and opponents alike raised the possibility of a new presidential vote soon as they stood chatting while waiting to vote.
Chavez is due to be sworn in for another six-year term on Jan. 10. But if his condition forces him to step down, Venezuela’s constitution requires that new presidential elections be called promptly and held within 30 days.
Chavez said before undergoing the surgery that if he’s unable to continue, Maduro should take his place and run for president.
Tinker Salas said that their showing in the gubernatorial races “means the government forces will have a strong state machinery in the event of a national election.”