CARACAS, Venezuela – A veteran of Venezuela's long-suffering political opposition compared Sunday's presidential election to a soccer game played on a hill.
Opposition candidate Henrique Capriles defended a parking lot-sized goal on the downhill half while President Hugo Chavez's team manned a pixie goal on the uphill side, said Ramon Guillermo Aveledo.
"And the referees also kicked the ball for him," Aveledo said of the incumbent.
As Chavez prepares to begin a fourth term, Chavez has shown no signs he'll tweak the incumbent advantages that many say helped him defeat his strongest challenger ever. Those include an enormous party structure, government aid programs and an army of civil servants.
In the face of those obstacles, the opposition faces the daunting task of protecting its hard-won unity over the next six long years of Chavez's presidency in which the president's political advantages will likely grow.
Capriles did score historic gains by winning 44 percent of the vote, in the opposition's best showing yet against Chavez in a presidential election.
"It's not a formidable defeat for the opposition, nor is it a big triumph for Chavismo," said Mariana Bacalao, a political science professor at Central University of Venezuela. "Never has the opposition been so strong."
In the days since the vote, Chavez has said he'd like to work with his opponents to unite the country.
The president talked to Capriles by telephone, a first after any of his victories, and on Tuesday called for a "permanent dialogue process." Justice Minister Tareck El Aissami also wrote on Twitter after the vote, "A responsible opposition is necessary for the good of the fatherland."
But many say the odds are so stacked that the opposition will struggle, and could fracture and fail to build on its historic gains. Despite the conciliatory words, Chavez's opponents also fear the president will resume his political attacks, as he's done after previous peace offers.
"I'm very disappointed because I was convinced that (Capriles) was going to win," said 44-year-old business owner Gonzalo Ramos Tuesday, looking depressed at a plaza in the upscale Altamira district. "Now I don't see much future, neither in the opposition nor the country."
At Capriles' campaign night event, supporters wept and hugged each other in consolation when the results were announced.
Government adversaries won't have much more time to mope. They'll have to gear up for gubernatorial elections in December and convince the rank-and-file that not all has been lost. The opposition has tended to fare better in votes against Chavez's allies rather than against the president himself, so they could still hope to make gains, as they have in governorships and legislative seats since the last presidential election in 2006.
But the election results showed that Chavez will be a tough opponent in the state elections, with the president winning a majority of votes in 21 of 23 states plus the capital district of Caracas.
Some analysts say any opposition divisions to emerge after Capriles' loss would help Chavez's allies. So far, opposition leaders have maintained at least a public show of unity.
"Recrimination over their electoral defeat could produce fissures," said Miguel Tinker Salas, a Latin American studies professor at Pomona College in Claremont, California.
Divergences over political ideology could also fracture the opposition coalition, with some conservative parties that had lined up behind Capriles already complaining about his center-left rhetoric.
"One of the main factors impeding unity is the lack of real consensus on an alternative proposal for the nation that can challenge the Chavez government," Tinker Salas said.
Despite the skepticism, opposition power broker Aveledo rejected suggestions that infighting will compromise unity within the opposition. The opposition had held its first ever presidential primary in February and promptly closed ranks behind Capriles, the winner.
"Those who say the unity is going to end are mistaken," he said.
What will surely continue is the government machine built by Chavez that many say has won the president 14 years of loyalty. That includes at least 2.4 million national government employees, making up 8 percent of the country's population. By comparison, the United States, with tenfold the population, has almost the same number of federal employees, at 2.7 million.
Chavez ramped up public spending in the run-up to the election, building public housing and bankrolling social programs. Venezuela has the largest proven oil reserves in the world and received hundreds of billions of dollars in oil revenue over the past decade.
Bacalao, the political science professor, said Chavez was able to directly link people's votes to the continuance of public aid.
"Certainly, these people could choose the Capriles option, but when it's your housing in play, the promise of housing, the delivery of housing, and they tell you, 'Look, the possibility that this happens is directly related to the permanence of President Chavez and that you vote for him,' you would have to wonder if this vote is truly free," Bacalao said.
Retired electrician Manuel Millan said he could see the Chavez campaign all around him before the vote. Indeed, Chavez's image and slogans are everywhere in this country of 29 million people, from street posts to even the uniforms of customs agents inspecting foreign visitors.
"The Chavez machinery was very big — vehicles, posters, TV broadcasts," Millan said. "The other candidate almost didn't have any of it."
For the moment, it appears Capriles will remain the opposition's top figure despite his loss Sunday.
"Just like millions of others, I am going to continue working for a better country," Capriles said in a Twitter message Tuesday. "We didn't win this time, but the dream continues and we aren't going to lose it."
"We must begin to work very hard for the upcoming elections," he added.
Capriles' campaign manager, Armando Briquet, said at a news conference Monday: "We are going to continue with Henrique Capriles at the forefront."
Despite Sunday's setback, many Venezuelans still see Capriles as the country's best bet for a brighter future — without Chavez.
As journalists mingled outside Capriles' campaign headquarters Monday, a young woman leaned out the window of a passing car and shouted: "I love you! Until the next one!"
Associated Press writer Jorge Rueda contributed to this report.
Christopher Toothaker on Twitter: http://twitter.com/ctoothaker