Opposition deals a blow to Chavez

Although it did not win a majority in the National Assembly elections on Sunday, the opposition Democratic Unity umbrella group claimed it won more votes. If confirmed, that will be a blow to the socialist Chavez in the 12th year of his rule. “We are the majority!” sang opposition supporters after the results were announced in the early hours of Monday.

After years of defeats and missteps, they will now focus on trying to topple the man they call an autocrat at the ballot box in two years time and will use parliament as a soap-box to proclaim their message.

With final results still coming in, however, Chavez was close to the three fifths of seats needs to authorise him special decree powers, with which he could choose to bypass parliament altogether.

A baseball-mad former tank soldier who rose from a poor rural childhood, Chavez first tried to take power in a 1992 coup and has lost only one election since he won the presidency at the ballot box in 1998.

He has become one of the world’s most recognisable politicians, taking the crown from Cuba’s Fidel Castro as Latin America’s leading critic of Washington and nationalising foreign oil companies in South America's top crude exporter.

Chavez, who can argue his democratic credentials are burnished by opposition gains, now would need their support to have the two thirds of votes needed for major legislation or appointments to important institutions like the Supreme Court.

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