'The cockroach has won the major battle,' Mr Caldera, 77, told jubilant supporters before calling for national unity in a victory speech on Sunday.
Forty-six years after he first ran as the Copei's presidential candidate, and a quarter of a century since he led the party to victory, the former lawyer and man of letters was elected at the head of the makeshift 17- party Convergence grouping that includes far-rightists, Communists and former guerrillas. He will need all his political skills to hold them together, never mind the nation.
His first tasks will be to slow inflation, currently around 45 per cent, slash the public deficit, renegotiate a crippling foreign debt and convince the military to stay in their barracks. Asked at a news conference yesterday which of suspended President Carlos Andres Perez's economic reforms he would change, Mr Caldera replied: 'I'd like to know myself but we're still analysing them in depth.'
An agonisingly slow and complex voting system, overseen by the armed forces, meant only partial results were in by yesterday afternoon. Early official results gave Mr Caldera just over 30 per cent of the vote, the left-wing Causa R (Radical Cause) 25, Copei 22 and the country's other traditional major party, Democratic Action, 20. Television and newspaper exit polls, however, gave Mr Caldera up to 31 per cent with the other three jostling for second place, all around the low twenties in percentage terms.
Claudio Fermin, of Democratic Action, the social democratic party which won in 1988 but saw President Perez suspended facing corruption charges, was the first to concede defeat yesterday afternoon. Copei and Democratic Action had alternated in power since democracy replaced dictatorship in 1959.
The fiery former trade unionist, Andres Velasquez, 40, of Causa R, finally conceded defeat yesterday but said he had won in Caracas and several states and that the overall result would be 'very, very close'. The early official results announced showed Mr Velasquez trailing by only around 20,000 votes but the gap seemed likely to widen.
After Mr Caldera made his victory speech based on exit polls - addressing his supporters as 'my dear cockroaches' - an angry Mr Velasquez accused him of jumping the gun and said it 'could create an undesirable situation'.
Oswaldo Alvarez Paz, 50, of Copei, which Mr Caldera helped found in 1946, held back on conceding defeat until late yesterday afternoon. When he finally did so, he also bitterly attacked Mr Caldera for announcing his victory before a single official result was in and for criticising his two opponents as 'immature' and poor losers.
Mr Caldera, who will be 78 by the time he takes over on 2 February from interim President Ramon Velasquez, is a political science graduate, former lawyer, author of a couple of dozen books and honorary graduate of literally dozens of universities worldwide. Although long considered one of Venezuela's old guard, he bent with the popular mood this year over Mr Perez's demise and metamorphosed into a populist, promising to withdraw many of Mr Perez's free- market reforms.
He made no bones of the fact that he saw himself as 'destined' to solve Venezuela's problems, but how he will govern with his mixed bag of Communists, ex-guerrillas and far-right supporters of the Fifties' dictators remains to be seen. His group is certain to be a minority in both the Senate and House of Deputies.