By CHRISTOPHER TOOTHAKER, Associated Press
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — 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.
Capriles said at a news conference on Tuesday that the campaign involved a "gigantic dirty war" and that he went into the race with significant disadvantages.
"I was up against a candidate with more resources," Capriles told reporters. "All the machinery of the state was used to try to destroy me. All sorts of things were said about me. ... But we conquered 6 million wills."
In the face of such obstacles, the opposition now faces the daunting task of protecting its hard-won unity over the next six long years of Chavez's presidency, during which the leader's political advantages could grow.
Capriles did score historic gains by winning 44 percent of the vote. It was 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 called Capriles after the election, saying later that it was a pleasant conversation and that they even "joked at one point."
Recalling the chat, Capriles said he insisted on "dialogue in the country, the unity of the country,"
"To try to say that 6.5 million people are an elite, I think that's not recognizing reality," Capriles said, referring to Chavez's frequent insults of his opponents as "the bourgeoisie" and "oligarchs." He said that he told Chavez "we're willing to help the government" and that Chavez told the opposition leader his campaign was "a great effort."
Capriles said the president should recognize that with so much of the country supporting the opposition, he should lead "a government for all Venezuelans."
"Dialogue is our spirit," Chavez said at a news conference at the presidential palace. He urged the opposition "to speak clearly to the country and show a will for coexistence."
Vice President Elias Jaua said: "Venezuela needs a responsible opposition."
But some 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, some also expect 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," business owner Gonzalo Ramos said 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.