Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has been re-elected to another six-year term after defeating opposition leader Henrique Capriles, the electoral council has said.
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 young opposition candidate Capriles, official results showed on Sunday.
Tibisay Lucena, the National Electoral Council president, said 81 per cent of the nearly 19 million registered voters cast ballots, one of the largest turnouts in years.
Chavez won more than 7.4 million votes, beating Capriles by more than 1.2 million votes, Lucena said.
Fireworks exploded in downtown Caracas, and Chavez’s supporters celebrated waving flags and jumping for joy outside the presidential palace.
Jubilant supporters poured onto the streets of the cappital to celebrate the victory of a man who has near-Messianic status among Venezuela’s poor, and there was relief too among leftist allies around the region – from Cuba to Bolivia – who rely on his 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.”
Capriles accepts defeat
The mood was grim at Capriles’ campaign headquarters, where opposition supporters broke into tears.
Capriles accepted defeat and congratulated Chavez for his re-election victory.
“I send him my congratulations,” Capriles told supporters at his campaign headquarters, looking downcast but saying he was proud of the large number of voters who turned out to cast their ballots for him.
Al Jazeera’s Lucia Newman, reporting from Caracas, said: “The political fight of life has been overcome, Chavez’s charisma and socialist plans have won the day.”
It was Chavez’s fourth election victory in nearly 14 years in office, though by a smaller margin than in 2006, when he won 62 per cent of the votes.
The victory gives Chavez another six-year term to cement his legacy and press more forcefully for a transition to socialism in the country with the world’s largest proven oil reserves.
Turnout had been high and voting was extended beyond the official closing time of 18:00 (22:30 GMT) at some polling stations where big queues were formed.
Earlier in the day, Chavez appealed for calm as his supporters began setting off fireworks and partying in the street.
“I ask the nation to stay calm, be patient and that nobody despair, that nobody fall into provocations, no violence, and we wait for the results,” Chavez said.
“Let’s prepare for this with maturity, with good faith and the willingness to continue the march of the Bolivarian fatherland,” Chavez said, referring to Venezuela’s independence hero Simon Bolivar.
Capriles tweeted “We know what happened and we should wait,” calling Sunday “a grand, historic day”.
While not accusing the government of intentionally delaying results, Capriles did complain earlier that most voting stations lacked lines and the government should get on with the vote-counting.
Capriles, 40, a lawyer-turned-politician had rallied support by focusing on the day-to-day problems that worry voters most, such as high crime, power blackouts and endemic corruption.
Sporting what he called his “lucky shoes,” the superstitious Capriles struck a conciliatory tone after voting.
“Whatever the people decide today is sacred,” he said to applause from supporters. “To know how to win, you have to know how to lose.”
‘Flagbearer of anti-imperialism’
Chavez had been leading in most polls ahead of the election, with one survey showing him at a 10 per cent lead in October while others had projected that a neck and neck outcome was likely.
In Cota 905, a poor barrio, all the voters Al Jazeera interviewed said they were backing Chavez. “Chavez has given many benefits to us,” Mireya Cecilia Maestro, a housewife, told Al Jazeera. “The social programmes, the subsidised food markets and all the housing projects help us a lot.”
Chavez staged a remarkable comeback after bouncing back from cancer this year and wants a new six-year term to consolidate his self-styled socialist revolution in the OPEC nation.”The changes have been pretty positive,” Antonio Tovar, a Chavez supporter in Cota 905, told Al Jazeera. “The government has helped the people a lot.”
While his direct connection with masses ensured his re-election, the opposition’s big share of the vote reflected a real and growing anger at Chavez’s failure to fix basic problems such as violent crime, potholed roads, electricity blackouts, and entrenched corruption at all levels.
Since taking power in 1999, the flamboyant former soldier has become a global flagbearer of “anti-imperialism,” gleefully baiting the US government while befriending leaders from Iran to Belarus whom the West views with suspicion.
At home, casting himself as an heir to independence hero Bolivar, Chavez has poured billions of oil revenues into anti-poverty programmes, and skillfully used his humble roots and folksy oratory to build a close connection with the masses.
“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.”