Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez waves the national flag while celebrating from a balcony at the Miraflores Palace in Caracas (Photo: Reuters)
Venezuela's socialist President Hugo Chavez won re-election in on Sunday, quashing the opposition's best bet at unseating him in 14 years and cementing himself as a dominant figure in modern Latin American history.
The 58-year-old Chavez took 54.42 percent of the vote, with 90 percent of the ballots counted, to 44.97 percent for young opposition candidate Henrique Capriles, official results showed.
Chavez's victory would extend his rule of the OPEC member state to two decades, though he is recovering from cancer and the possibility of a recurrence hangs over his political future.
Jubilant supporters poured onto the streets of Caracas to celebrate the victory of a man who has near-Messianic status among Venezuela's poor, and there was relief too among leftist allies around the region - from Cuba to Bolivia - who rely on his oil-financed generosity.
"I'm celebrating with a big heart," said Mary Reina, a 62-year-old Chavez supporter who lives in the hillside slum where the president cast his vote. "Chavez is the hope of the people and of Latin America."
The mood was grim at Capriles' campaign headquarters, where opposition supporters broke into tears. The opposition will now have to regroup quickly for state elections in December.
Since taking power in 1999, the flamboyant former soldier has become a global flagbearer of "anti-imperialism," gleefully baiting the U.S. government while befriending leaders from Iran to Belarus whom the West views with suspicion.
At home, casting himself as an heir to independence hero Simon Bolivar, Chavez has poured billions of oil revenues into anti-poverty programs, and skillfully used his humble roots and folksy oratory to build a close connection with the masses.
While that connection ensured his re-election, the opposition's big share of the vote reflected a real and growing anger at Chavez's failure to fix basic problems such as violent crime, potholed roads, electricity blackouts, and entrenched corruption at all levels.
Attention will now shift to Chavez's plans for a new six-year term at the helm of South America's biggest oil exporter. The government spent lavishly during the campaign to boost Chavez's chances, likely ensuring healthy growth of 4 to 5 percent this year but potentially paving the way for an inflation-fueled economic hangover in 2013.a
In the past, Chavez has taken advantage of election wins to press forward with radical reforms, and there is speculation his taste for nationalizations may turn to some untouched corners of Venezuela's banking, food and health industries.