Chavez opposition makes important electoral gains

CARACAS, Venezuela — Opponents of Hugo Chavez won new clout on Monday to try to rein in a socialist leader who has ruled largely unchecked, making gains in congressional elections that weaken the president ahead of his next re-election bid and could force him to deal with rivals.
Both sides claimed the results released Monday as a victory, but Chavez lost the two-thirds majority that has allowed his allies to ignore opponents in rewriting fundamental laws, appointing key officials such as Supreme Court justices and letting Chavez pass laws by decree.
Opposition leaders said they intend to start imposing some checks on Chavez in the National Assembly, and hope the president is receptive to dialogue.
Potentially just as significant in the long run were opposition claims they actually got more votes than Chavez-backed candidates did in Sunday's election and were deprived of a majority only because the system of congressional districts was stacked in Chavez's favor.
The opposition's strong showing could pose a challenge for the president's hopes of winning re-election in 2012 — a contest based on the popular vote.
While his opponents celebrated the results, Chavez dismissed their claims of victory.
"Keep beating me like that," Chavez said with a laugh at a news conference. "The revolutionary forces obtained a very important victory."
With the vast majority of votes counted, electoral officials said Chavez's socialist party won 98 of the 165 seats in the National Assembly, while the opposition coalition won 65 seats. The remaining 2 seats went to a splinter left-leaning party.