Monday, December 04, 2006

Chavez wins re-election by wide margin

Yahoo! News
Chavez wins re-election by wide margin
By IAN JAMES, Associated Press Writer

President Hugo Chavez won re-election by a wide margin Sunday, giving the firebrand leftist six more years to redistribute Venezuela's vast oil wealth to the poor and press his campaign to counter U.S. influence in Latin America and beyond.

Challenger Manuel Rosales conceded defeat but vowed to remain in opposition. During the campaign, Rosales accused Chavez of edging Venezuela toward authoritarian rule and warned the president could undertake even more radical policies if re-elected.

Minutes after the results were announced, Chavez appeared on the balcony of the presidential palace singing the national anthem. He pledged to deepen his effort to transform Venezuela into a socialist society.

"Long live the socialist revolution! Destiny has been written," Chavez shouted to thousands of flag-waving supporters wearing red shirts and braving a pouring rain.

"That new era has begun," he said, raising a hand in the air. "We have shown that Venezuela is red!... No one should fear socialism... Socialism is human. Socialism is love," Chavez said. "Down with imperialism! We need a new world!"

Since he first won office in 1998, Chavez has increasingly dominated all branches of government and his allies now control congress, state offices and the judiciary. He has called President Bush the devil, allied himself with Iran and influenced elections across the region.

Chavez also has used Venezuela's oil wealth to his political advantage. He has channeled oil profits toward multibillion-dollar programs for the poor including subsidized food, free university education and cash benefits for single mothers. He has also helped allies from Cuba to Bolivia with oil and petrodollars.

He now promises to solidify his social program.

With 78 percent of voting stations reporting, Chavez had 61 percent to 38 percent for challenger Rosales, said Tibisay Lucena, head of the country's elections council. Chavez had nearly 6 million votes versus 3.7 million for Rosales, according to the partial tally.

Turnout among the 15.9 million eligible voters was 62 percent, according to an official bulletin of results, making Chavez's lead insurmountable.

"We will continue in this struggle," Rosales told cheering supporters as he conceded defeat.

Some supporters at his campaign headquarters wept, while others were clearly angry.

"We have to do something," said Dona Bavaro, a 36-year-old Rosales supporter. "My country is being stolen. This is the last chance we have. Communism is coming here."

Rosales, a cattle rancher and governor of western Zulia state who stepped down temporarily to run against Chavez, focused his campaign on issues such as rampant crime and corruption, widely seen as Chavez's main vulnerabilities.

A top Rosales adviser, Teodoro Petkoff, said the voting was carried out in a "satisfactory manner." He said some irregularities had occurred but most were resolved. Another member of the Rosales camp had accused pro-Chavez soldiers of reopening closed polling stations and busing voters to them.

Even before polls closed, Chavez supporters celebrated in the streets, setting off fireworks and cruising Caracas honking horns and shouting "Chavez isn't going anywhere!"

Earlier, Chavez loyalists jarred voters awake hours before dawn in Caracas with recordings of reveille blaring from truck-mounted loudspeakers.

"We're here to support our president, who has helped us so much," said Jose Domingo Izaguirre, a factory worker who waited hours to vote. His family recently moved into new government housing.

Rosales supporters accused Chavez of deepening class divisions with searing rhetoric demonizing his opponents.

Alicia Primera, a 54-year-old housewife, was among voters so passionate about the choice that they camped out overnight in voting queues.

"I voted for Chavez previously. I cried for him," Primera said. "Now I'm crying for him to leave. He's sown a lot of hate with his verbiage."

The campaign has been hostile, with Chavez calling Rosales a pawn of Washington and Rosales saying he was on the alert for fraud. Rosales' campaign had endorsed the electronic voting system as trustworthy — as long as no attempts were made to thwart it.

More than 125,000 soldiers and reservists were deployed to safeguard the balloting.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Janelle Hironimus stressed "the importance of a free, fair and transparent process."

Conflict and ambition have marked the rise of Chavez, 52, from a boy selling homemade sweets in a dusty backwater to a failed coup commander in 1992 and now a leader who could set the tone of Latin American politics for years to come.

Constitutional reforms he oversaw in 1999 triggered new elections the following year that he easily won. Loyalists helped him survive a 2002 coup, a subsequent general strike and a 2004 recall referendum.

Chavez says he would convene a commission upon re-election to propose constitutional reforms, likely including an end to presidential term limits. Current law prevents him from running again in 2012.

The president insists he is a democrat and will continue to respect private property — though he has boosted state control over the oil industry and has said he might nationalize utilities. Venezuela is the world's fifth largest oil exporter and soaring oil prices have made it the continent's fastest growing economy.

Chavez has pledged at least $1.1 billion in loans and financial aid to Latin American countries in the past two years, and billions more in bond bailouts for friendly governments as well as generously financed oil deals. But the largesse has proved a weakness at home, with polls suggesting many Venezuelans believe the aid impedes efforts to address the country's own problems.

Chavez, who says Fidel Castro is like a father to him, has built increasingly close ties with Cuba, sending the island oil while thousands of Cuban doctors treat Venezuela's poor for free.