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Hugo Chávez's party sweeps Venezuelan state elections

CARACAS, Venezuela – Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez, despite an intensifying battle with cancer, has tightened his grip on the country’s political machine with his party crushing the opposition and winning most governorships in state races on Sunday.

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

Capriles admitted 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,” he said.

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.

Turnout was just under 54 percent nationwide, the top electoral body said. That is fairly low, according to analyst Luis Vicente León, who said the timing very close to Christmas likely had an impact, especially for the opposition, whose voters tend to be from the middle and upper classes.

The elections were overshadowed by the health of Chávez, who was improving and already “giving instructions” from his bed in Havana where he is recovering from cancer surgery, a Venezuelan Cabinet member said earlier.

Chávez, 58, is due to be sworn in for a third presidential term on Jan. 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 Nicolás 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.

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