CARACAS, Venezuela – Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez suffered a political blow in congressional elections, losing the ability to pass new laws at will after opposition candidates banded together behind a unified plank of candidates.
Mr. Chávez still enjoys a congressional majority after candidates loyal to him won at least 96 of the 165 seats. But opposition candidates won at least 61 seats, enough to strip Mr. Chávez of his two-thirds majority-the threshold needed to pass sweeping legislation in the congress.
No official vote tally has been released. But the opposition says it also won 52% of the popular vote which, if verified, would provide momentum going into the 2012 presidential elections. "We are the majority," said Ramón Guillermo Aveledo, an opposition director.
Aristóbulo Istúriz, campaign chief for the socialist PSUV party, also declared the results a victory. "We went for two-thirds and weren't able to reach it," he said. "But we're the majority." There was little joy at the Socialist party headquarters, which shut its doors as the vote count dragged on into the early hours of the morning.
"A new cycle begins today," said Carlos Ocariz, the opposition mayor of Petare, a sprawling mostly slum district that was once a Chávez stronghold, but which elected an opposition deputy on Sunday. "Chávez's rollercoaster is going down."
The election is widely seen as a referendum on the president's 11-year rule. Before the election, the populist leader had predicted his United Socialist Party of Venezuela or PSUV would win a two-thirds majority. Mr. Chávez, 56 years old, named the electoral campaign "Operation Demolition" and had told his followers to "demolish" the political opposition.
"This will change the political dynamics of Venezuela," said Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based think tank, the Inter-American Dialogue. "It's a respectable result which the opposition can build on for the 2012 presidential race. It shows they are back in the game and Chávez is vulnerable."