Venezuela’s populist president is loved and loathed after winning elections in 2012.
A triumphant Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan president, has hailed his “perfect” victory in the country’s presidential election, extending a hand to the opposition as he called for national unity in the divided nation.
Addressing thousands of cheering supporters from the balcony of his Miraflores presidential residence on Monday, Chavez sang the national anthem and vowed to be a better president after defeating rival Henrique Capriles.
“Viva Venezuela! Viva the fatherland!” exulted the leftist leader, who won a new six-year term after almost 14 years in power. “The battle was perfect and the victory was perfect.”
“I want to include everybody, including sectors of the opposition,” Chavez, wearing a red shirt, said after the opposition’s best election result yet against the incumbent.
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Brandishing the sword of Venezuelan independence hero Simon Bolivar, Chavez pledged to press ahead with the socialist revolution that has antagonised opponents at home and abroad.
“Venezuela will continue its march toward the democratic socialism of the 21st century,” he said. “I commit to being a better president than I’ve been these past few years.”
Chavez supporters dripping with sweat strained to catch a glimpse of of the president from the street below the palace in Caracas while dancing and drinking rum.
The 58-year-old Chavez took 54.42 per cent of the vote, with 90 per cent of the ballots counted, to 44.97 per cent for 40-year-old Capriles, official results showed.
Chavez won more than 7.4 million votes, beating Capriles by more than 1.2 million votes, Lucena said.
Jubilant supporters poured onto the streets of the capital to celebrate the victory of a man who has near-Messianic status among Venezuela’s poor.
There was relief too among leftist allies around the region – from Cuba to Bolivia – who rely on Chavez’s oil-financed generosity.
“It was amazing, it feels super good,” Hildre Andara, a 48-year-old saleswomen said of the victory, as she danced in downtown Caracas.
“We were doing the math for two weeks, and we knew he would win by this much. It was the margin we were expecting,” she told Al Jazeera.
Some pollsters had predicted a far tighter race.
“He should improve security now that he has won again,” Andara said. “It’s time for a new strategy on that matter.”
The leaders of Bolivia and Ecuador congratulated Chavez on his re-election, saying it was a victory not only for him but also for his Latin American allies.
“The victory of President Chavez is a victory for democracy,” Bolivia’s Evo Morales said.
“It is not just a victory for the people of Venezuela. It is a victory for the Bolivarian alliance and all of Latin America.”
Chavez’s new presidential term is a triumph for “all Latin American people who fight for dignity, sovereignty and the right to determine their own destiny,” the Bolivian president said.
His words were echoed by Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa, another leftist and key regional ally.
“Viva Venezuela, viva the great fatherland, viva the Bolivarian Revolution!” Correa tweeted.
Argentine President Cristina Kirchner Fernandez also congratulated Chavez.
‘President of the poor’
A retired lieutenant colonel who first won fame with a failed 1992 coup, Chavez has become Latin America’s principal anti-US agitator, criticising Washington while getting close to US adversaries including Cuba and Iran.
A decade-long oil boom has given him tens of billions of dollars for social investments that range from free health clinics to newly-built apartment complexes, helping him build a strong following among the poor.
“I am with Chavez until death,” Freddy Toledo, a street vendor in Caracas, told Al Jazeera. “He is the president of the poor. He has helped all the workers – defending them from the private companies who were exploiting them.”
The president took advantage of his landslide win in 2006 to order takeovers in the telecoms, electricity and oil sectors.
Chavez may launch further nationalisations in some largely untouched corners of the economy, including the banking, food and health industries.
But any recurrence of the cancer which has already forced him to undergo three operations in Cuba since June 2011 could derail his plans.
Opposition leaders appeared crushed by the loss. It followed nearly a month of euphoria as Capriles polished his stump speeches, held increasingly fervent rallies and appeared be to gaining ground in the polls.
The youthful state governor put on a brave face, celebrating his “house-by-house” campaign as the start of a long road to changing the direction of the country.
“I gave it my all and I’m proud of what we built,” a subdued Capriles told supporters at his campaign headquarters. “I will continue to work for Venezuela.”
He and other leaders of the Democratic Unity coalition must now prepare for state governorship elections in December, when they will hope to at least increase the opposition’s influence at the local level.