Runaway victory for Chavez

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The Independent US

Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez won re-election by a wide margin today, giving him another six years to solidify his self-styled social revolution and further his crusade to counter US influence.

With 78 per cent of voting stations reporting, Chavez had 61 per cent against 38 per cent for challenger Manuel Rosales, said Tibisay Lucena, head of the country's elections council. Chavez had nearly six million votes compared with 3.7 million for Rosales, according to the partial tally.

Turnout was 62 per cent, according to an official bulletin of results, making the lead insurmountable.

Minutes after the results were announced, Chavez, 52, appeared on the balcony of the presidential palace in Caracas, singing the national anthem.

Even before polls closed, hundreds of Chavez supporters celebrated in the streets, setting off fireworks and cruising Caracas in caravans, honking horns and shouting: "Chavez isn't going anywhere!"

A top Rosales adviser, Teodoro Petkoff, said that the voting process "was carried out in a satisfactory manner". He said some irregularities had occurred but that most were resolved. Another member of the Rosales camp had accused pro-Chavez soldiers of reopening closed polling stations and busing voters to them.

The vote was being monitored by observers including the European Union, the Carter Centre and the Organisation of American States.

Since he first won office in 1998, Chavez has increasingly dominated all branches of government and his allies now control congress, state offices and the judiciary. He has called US president George Bush the devil, allied himself with Iran and influenced elections across the region.

Chavez has also used Venezuela's oil wealth to his political advantage. He has channelled oil profits toward multi-billion programmes for the poor, including subsidised food, free university education and cash benefits for single mothers. He has helped allies from Cuba to Bolivia with oil and petrodollars.

Rosales, a cattle rancher and governor of western Zulia state who stepped down temporarily to run against Chavez, has rebuilt the opposition.

During the campaign, Rosales accused Chavez of edging Venezuela toward one-man rule. His campaign focused on issues such as rampant crime and corruption, widely seen as Chavez's main vulnerabilities.

The campaign had been hostile, with Chavez calling Rosales a pawn of Washington and Rosales saying he was on the alert for fraud. Rosales' campaign had endorsed the electronic voting system as trustworthy - as long as no attempts were made to thwart it.

More than 125,000 soldiers and reservists were deployed to safeguard the balloting.

Conflict and ambition have marked the rise of Chavez, from a boy selling homemade sweets in a dusty backwater to a failed coup commander in 1992 and now a leader who could set the tone of Latin American politics for years to come.

Constitutional reforms he oversaw in 1999 triggered new elections the following year that he easily won. Loyalists helped him survive a 2002 coup, a subsequent general strike and a 2004 recall referendum.

Chavez had said he would convene a commission upon re-election to propose constitutional reforms, probably including an end to presidential term limits. Current law prevents him from running again in 2012.

Some Rosales supporters worry that a re-elected Chavez would turn more radical. Chavez insists he is a democrat and will continue to respect private property - though he has boosted state control over the oil industry and has said he might nationalise utilities.

Chavez, who says Fidel Castro is like a father to him, has built increasingly close ties with Cuba, sending the island oil while thousands of Cuban doctors treat Venezuela's poor for free.

"Long live the socialist revolution! Destiny has been written," Chavez shouted to thousands of flag-waving supporters in the pouring rain.

He said he would now try to deepen a revolution that had spread Venezuela's oil wealth among the country's poor.

"No one should fear socialism," Chavez proclaimed. "Socialism is human. Socialism is love."