As Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez recovers in Cuba from his latest cancer-related surgery, his Socialist Party allies swept the country’s gubernatorial elections Sunday.
Of Venezuela’s 23 governorships, Socialist candidates won 20, reducing the political opposition’s number from seven to three.
“This was a win for President Chavez's Socialist Party,” wrote the BBC’s Venezuela correspondent Sara Grainger.
“They not only increased the number of governorships they held … but they took two key states from the opposition -- Zulia, the cradle of the country's oil sector, and Carabobo, Venezuela's industrial heartland.”
Henrique Capriles Radonski, however, Chavez’s chief rival in October’s presidential elections, held onto his seat in Miranda, defeating Socialist party candidate and former Vice President Elias Juau.
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“Having lost in October's presidential polls to Hugo Chavez, he needed this win to revive his political career,” Grainger said.
Capriles mounted the greatest political challenge yet to Chavez’s 14-year presidency in October, garnering 45 percent of the vote, though Chavez’s victory was still decisive with 55 percent of the electorate.
Capriles' survival demonstrates that he will continue to be a leader in the opposition, whose role could be pivotal in the event of new elections should Chavez be unable to continue in office.
Under the Chavez-written Venezuelan Constitution, if the president leaves office within the first four years of his six-year term, new elections must be held within the first 30 days.
Before flying to Cuba last week for his fourth cancer surgery since 2011, Chavez named Vice President Nicolas Maduro as his preferred political heir, asking for his supporters to back him in the event of new elections.
Capriles made no mention of a potential second bid for the presidency during his victory speech, instead focusing on the sobering loss his political coalition suffered at the state level.
“This is a difficult moment, but in every difficult moment opportunities emerge," Capriles said, the Associated Press reported. "We have to strengthen ourselves more."
Interestingly, turnout in the local elections was dramatically lower than in the national elections, 53 percent compared to 80 percent.
Reports on Chavez’s health also dominated the Venezuelan media in the run-up to the elections, which opposition members claimed was a political maneuver to gain votes for Chavez’s allies.
"It really does underscore the fact that Chavismo really can survive, at least at the regional level, without Chavez," said Miguel Tinker Salas, a Latin American studies professor at Pomona College in Claremont, California, the AP reported.
"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."