Hugo Chavez re-elected president of Venezuela

CARACAS, Venezuela - Venezuelans endorsed President Hugo Chavez's ''social revolution'' on Sunday by electing him to a fresh six-year term, consolidating Latin America's second leftist regime after Cuba.

With 77 percent of the votes counted, 59 percent went to Chavez and 37 percent went to his nearest challenger, former Zulia state Gov. Francisco Arias Cardenas.

The results were revealed late Sunday by the National Electoral Council hours after they had been scheduled to be released. Celebrations broke out in the capital of Caracas, with fireworks and revelers in the streets.

''A new republic is being born,'' a beaming Chavez said when he cast his ballot to the cheers of supporters in a Caracas suburb when voting opened Sunday morning.

The voting was to determine the presidency, a new 165-member unicameral legislature, governors, mayors and other offices - all institutions that had to be ''re-legitimized'' under a new constitution Chavez pushed through after taking office last year.

Chavez, who has completely overhauled Venezuela's institutions during his short term, had asked voters to look past sharp rises in crime and unemployment by re-electing him and giving his reform movement a majority in Congress.

''Hugo, I am sure that nothing and no one can stop you now,'' Cuban President Fidel Castro told his friend Chavez in a chummy telephone conversation Saturday.

Still, even with Chavez's overwhelming victory, he could emerge from the voting with a weaker mandate.

Pre-election polls had shown the local races arecloser than the presidential vote, with many of Chavez's ''revolutionary'' candidates losing out to incumbents from traditional parties.

The president's movement is expected to win at least a simple majority in the legislature. But Chavez may fall short of the two-thirds needed to rubber-stamp presidential appointments and proposed laws. And the governorships of nearly half of the country's 23 states could go to the opposition.

Most Venezuelans seemed to believe Chavez's promises that he will now refocus his revolution from erasing the old political order to what matters most to the people: jobs and personal safety.

''These problems can't be fixed in one day or one year,'' said Milagros Iguerara, a 50-year-old housewife standing in line to vote. ''He is going to need five years or eight years.''

Chavez's support among the poor majority of Venezuela's 23 million people had made him the favorite over Arias, who helped Chavez lead a failed 1992 coup attempt but who broke away from the president this year.

The country's poor overwhelmingly put their faith in Chavez's ''social revolution,'' while the bulk of the middle and upper classes, frightened by Chavez's attacks on business and his coziness with Cuba, supported Arias.

The success of Chavez, 46, is a testament to previous governments' failure to provide a decent standard of living in the world's third-largest oil-exporting country - and a reminder that not everyone accepts globalization and free markets as a model for society.

Thousands of people waited in lines for hours in Sunday's hot tropical sun to cast ballots filled with dozens of candidates and parties. The national election board ordered polling stations to stay open an extra two hours to accommodate the crowds and to compensate for technical glitches that delayed voting in some areas.

About 12 million Venezuelans were eligible to vote. The balloting was originally set for May 28, but was postponed because of computer difficulties in the vote-tallying system.

Arias cast his ballot hundreds of miles to the west of Caracas in his home state of Zulia, where he served twice as governor.

The country's fate is now ''in the hands of God and the hands of the Venezuelan people,'' Arias told reporters. ''At stake is our way of life of liberty.''

Arias said he wanted to reverse what he calls Chavez's militarization of Venezuelan society and take a friendlier stance with business leaders to attract foreign investment.

''The country is not going to advance with populism, but rather with technology,'' said Carlos Piniero, a 40-year-old businessman who supports Arias.

Chavez, through his fiery speeches attacking a ''rancid oligarchy,'' has rekindled hope among Venezuelans who have seen their standard of living steadily decline over the last two decades.

For the first time in memory, the Venezuelan economy has fallen into recession during an oil boom: The gross domestic product shrank by 7 percent last year despite a quadrupling of petroleum prices. And the almost religious support Chavez enjoyed a year ago has begun to evaporate, with polls showing his approval rating falling from more than 80 percent when he took office to about 60 percent now.


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