(photo credit: AP)
President Hugo Chavez won re-election by a wide margin on Sunday, giving him six more years to redistribute Venezuela's vast oil wealth to the poor and press his campaign to counter US influence in the world.
With 78 percent of voting stations reporting, Chavez had 61 percent to 38 percent for challenger Manuel Rosales, said Tibisay Lucena, head of the country's elections council. Chavez had nearly 6 million votes versus 3.7 million for Rosales. Turnout was 62 percent, according to an official bulletin, making the lead insurmountable.
Minutes after the results were announced, Chavez appeared on the balcony of the presidential palace singing the national anthem.
"Long live the socialist revolution! Destiny has been written," Chavez shouted to thousands of flag-waving supporters in a pouring rain, a sea of red-shirted humanity. Chavez said he would deepen his effort to transform Venezuela into a socialist society.
"That new era has begun," he shouted, raising a hand in the air. "We have shown that Venezuela is red! ... No one should fear socialism ... Socialism is human. Socialism is love."
"Down with imperialism! We need a new world!" he said.
At Rosales' campaign headquarters, some supporters wept, while others were clearly angry.
"We have to do something," said Dona Bavaro, a 36-year-old Rosales supporter. "My country is being stolen. This is the last chance we have. Communism is coming here."
During the campaign, Rosales accused Chavez of edging Venezuela toward one-man rule. Chavez, who says Fidel Castro is like a father to him, has built increasingly close ties with Cuba, sending the island oil while thousands of Cuban doctors treat Venezuela's poor for free.
Chavez has said he plans to seek constitutional reforms that would include an end to presidential term limits. Current law prevents him from running again in 2012.
A top Rosales adviser, Teodoro Petkoff, said early Sunday evening that the voting "was carried out in a satisfactory manner." He said some irregularities had occurred but most were resolved. Another member of the Rosales camp had accused pro-Chavez soldiers of reopening closed polling stations and busing voters to them.
The vote was monitored by observers from the European Union, the Carter Center and the Organization of American States.
Since he first won office in 1998, Chavez has increasingly dominated all branches of government and his allies now control congress, state offices and the judiciary. He has called US President George W. Bush the devil, allied himself with Iran and influenced elections across the region.
Chavez also has used Venezuela's oil wealth to his political advantage. He has channeled oil profits toward multibillion-dollar programs for the poor including subsidized food, free university education and cash benefits for single mothers.
Rosales supporters accused Chavez of deepening class divisions with searing rhetoric demonizing his opponents.
Some Rosales supporters worry that a re-elected Chavez would turn more radical. Chavez insists he is a democrat and will continue to respect private property _ though he has boosted state control over the oil industry and has said he might nationalize utilities. Venezuela is the world's fifth largest oil exporter and soaring oil prices have made it the continent's fastest growing economy.
Constitutional reforms he oversaw in 1999 triggered new elections the following year that he easily won. Loyalists helped him survive a 2002 coup, a subsequent general strike and a 2004 recall referendum.
Rosales, a cattle rancher and governor of western Zulia state who stepped down temporarily to run against Chavez, has rebuilt the opposition from its referendum defeat. His campaign focused on issues such as rampant crime and corruption, widely seen as Chavez's main vulnerabilities.
The campaign has been hostile, with Chavez calling Rosales a pawn of Washington and Rosales saying he was on the alert for fraud. Rosales' campaign had endorsed the electronic voting system as trustworthy - as long as no attempts were made to thwart it.
More than 125,000 soldiers and reservists were deployed to safeguard the balloting.
In Washington, US State Department spokeswoman Janelle Hironimus stressed "the importance of a free, fair and transparent process."