Chavez's rival re-elected, but opposition loses ground

President Hugo Chavez, despite an intensifying battle with cancer, tightened his grip on Venezuela, with the opposition suffering a blow and losing several governorships in state races.

Chavez's top rival, Henrique Capriles, survived his own tough test, winning re-election as Miranda state governor. But Chavez's party gained in four other states, said electoral officials in this OPEC nation with the world's top proven oil reserves.

The prominent opposition leader allowed that the losses were a "tough moment" for Venezuela's opposition.

"Our (opposition candidates) have lost some ground. But they are no less leaders than they were yesterday," Capriles said.

"We are going to reach the dream that we have. This is a tough moment, but there are opportunities in every tough moment."

In the country's 23 states, the socialist ruling party won 20 of the top state posts while the opposition held onto three including Miranda, the electoral council said. The opposition had held seven state governorships before the vote.

The elections were overshadowed by the health of Chavez, who was improving and already "giving instructions" from his bed in Havana as he continues to recover from cancer surgery, a Venezuelan cabinet member said earlier.

Chavez is due to be sworn in for a third presidential term on January 10, but the country is now on tenterhooks to see if the outspoken, formerly tireless leader will remain their president, become incapacitated, or worse.

He has named foreign minister and vice president Nicolas Maduro as both his temporary replacement and hand-picked successor.

Maduro on Sunday declared the vote "a resounding defeat" for the opposition, in a telephone interview on state television.

Chavez's "people here reached out with a huge act of love," he said.

Earlier, Science and Technology Minister Jorge Arreaza, who is in Cuba with Chavez, 58, said the president was recovering well from his surgery.

"As of yesterday, El Comandante had already resumed communicating with us, giving instructions, governing in fact, giving instructions to be implemented in our country," Arreaza, husband of Chavez's eldest daughter, added in a phone call broadcast on state television.

"He continues to recover, positively, day after day, hour after hour," he said.

Despite an opposition on the ropes, Capriles is still likely breathing a sigh of relief; after his loss in the presidential poll he is keen to consolidate his status as leader of an array of parties that oppose Chavez, a garrulous former paratrooper who has thoroughly dominated this nation since first being elected in 1999.

His supporters in Caracas celebrated his victory, erupting into screams outside the opposition headquarters as the results for Miranda state were announced.

But the crowd was more subdued as it learned of the opposition defeats elsewhere.

One woman, lamenting the loss of the western state of Zulia, cried out "I can't believe it. It's not normal."

But Oscar Rojas, who spoke from his car as he drove past the headquarters in a parade of honking horns and cheers, said the opposition should focus on the good news.

"It is critical that Capriles has won Miranda, because it consolidates the possibility of his presidential candidacy," should new elections be called, Rojas added.

While Chavez easily won a new six-year term in the October vote, Capriles nevertheless gave the opposition its best score yet against the president, earning nearly 45 percent of the ballots.

Chavez had claimed before embarking on his arduous re-election campaign that he was cancer-free.

But he was forced to tell the nation a week ago that he had suffered a recurrence of the disease and announced that he would have to return to Cuba, a key Venezuelan ally, for surgery.

Venezuela has never clearly stated what type of cancer Chavez has, nor what organs are affected, but doctors removed a tumor from his pelvic region last year.

Aides admitted that Chavez experienced "complications" from this most recent surgery, including bleeding that now appears to be under control.

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