Allies of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez steamrolled the country’s opposition in gubernatorial elections, winning 20 of 23 states. The good news for the opposition? The re-election of its top leader, Henrique Capriles, who lost to Chávez in October’s presidential vote.

Sunday’s vote came less than a week after Venezuela’s leftist president was operated on in Cuba for the fourth time for a cancer that many fear he won’t beat. It was widely seen as a referendum on whether his socialist-inspired Bolivian Revolution movement has enough momentum to outlive him.

Capriles’ win sets him up as the presumed challenger to go up against Vice President Nicolas Maduro, Chávez’s hand-picked successor in presidential election that would be held within 30 days of the president’s death or separation from office.

“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.”

The vote was the first in Chávez’s nearly 14-year-old presidency in which he has been unable to actively campaign. He hasn’t spoken publicly since Tuesday’s surgery.

Jorge Rodriguez, campaign manager for the pro-Chávez camp, hailed the victory saying it represented “the map painted red”–the color of Chávez’s socialist party.

The strong showing could give the president’s confidants a freer hand to deepen his socialist policies, including a drive to fortify grass-roots citizen councils that are directly funded by the central government.

Capriles' beat former Vice President Elias Jaua in the nation's second most populous state, Miranda, and his win will allow him to cement his position as the country's dominant opposition leader. His supporters celebrated shouting with their hands in the air while fireworks exploded overhead.

Capriles told supporters in a victory speech that "it's difficult to come here and show a smile."
"This is a difficult moment, but in every difficult moment opportunities emerge," Capriles said, wearing a track suit emblazoned with the yellow, blue and red of the Venezuelan flag. "We have to strengthen ourselves more."

The 53 percent voter turnout was considerably lower than the more than 80 percent who cast ballots in October's presidential vote, when Chávez won another six-year term. Some said the closeness of the vote to Christmas and apparent apathy among some voters contributed to the relatively low turnout.

Chávez's political allies had framed the elections as a referendum on his legacy, urging people to dedicate the vote to the president. Banners went up on lampposts ahead of the vote reading "Now more than ever, with Chávez."

Chávez, meanwhile, remained out of sight in Cuba, recovering accompanied by his four children after the latest operation for pelvic cancer.

David Smilde, a University of Georgia sociology professor, said the president's candidates benefited from Venezuelans' uncertainty about a future without Chávez and fears of losing benefits they've accrued under him.

"I think with Chávez sick ... it makes them think what would things be like without Chávez," Smilde said. "People are thinking of their own interest."

Speaking at a news conference, Maduro implored voters: "Let's not fail Chávez." He addressed those who hadn't cast ballots yet, saying "let's not make a bad impression with our commander Chávez."

Chávez is due to be sworn in for another term on Jan. 10. But if his condition forces him to step down, Venezuela’s constitution requires that new presidential elections be held within 30 days.

Chávez said before undergoing the surgery that if he's unable to continue, Maduro should take his place and run for president.

Antonio Ledezma, the campaign manager for the opposition coalition, accused the government of "doing everything possible for abstention to win." He cited the electoral council's decision to schedule the vote at a time when many Venezuelans are leaving home on vacation, and also a government decision to push forward the start date of school vacations.

Ledezma also said, however, that the opposition's defeat is "an opportunity to reinvent ourselves."

Based on reporting by The Associated Press.

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