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Chavez wins by a wide margin

Venezuelans overwhelmingly re-elected President Hugo Chavez on Sunday, further extending a presidency that began when he was swept into power eight years ago.

The populist leader will receive another six years in office to broaden his leftist revolution and cement his government as the most defiant anti-Bush administration voice in Latin America.

With 78 percent of the votes counted, electoral authorities announced Chavez, 52, had secured 61.3 percent of the vote to 38.4 percent for Manuel Rosales, whose candidacy united a fractured opposition but had only four months to gather momentum. Chavez's tally presented an insurmountable lead.

Chavez's "Bolivarian revolution" is set to last until at least 2013, though Chavez told reporters Thursday that a change to the Constitution could permit him to rule even longer.

"I'm not planning to say in the Constitution, 'Hugo Chavez will remain in the presidency until he dies,' because that would be perverse," said Chavez, who under the law can serve only one more term. "It's very different to study the possibility of indefinite re-election. It will always be the will of the people."

Rosales campaign officials said voting equipment malfunctioned at several polling sites and there were delays in pro-Rosales districts. But authorities with the five-member National Electoral Council said they had not found serious discrepancies.

"Everything is perfectly normal in the country," Vicente Diaz, who is considered partial to the opposition, told reporters Sunday night. Observers from the European Union, the Carter Center in Atlanta and the Organization of American States monitored the vote and reported only isolated incidents by early Sunday night.

The Chavez victory will further consolidate the tide of leftist politicians who have won office in Latin America in recent years, including a former labor leader in Brazil, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva; Michelle Bachelet, a market-friendly socialist in Chile; and Evo Morales, the indigenous leader of Bolivia. Although Colombia, Peru and Mexico this year elected protrade, pro-U.S. presidents, leftist leaders who criticize market reforms and sharply question the Bush administration's policies in the region were elected last month in Nicaragua and Ecuador.

Chavez has said he would ensure that Venezuela, which says it has the largest oil reserves outside the Middle East, remained a price hawk in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries. He has also said he would solidify Venezuela's relations with Cuba and Iran, countries the Bush administration is working to isolate. Chavez, who survived a 2002 coup the White House tacitly endorsed, often accuses Washington of backing undemocratic opposition groups.

With bugles and fireworks awakening voters across Caracas and beyond early Sunday, Venezuelans flocked to 32,000 voting booths guarded by 125,000 soldiers and reservists. Chavez, wearing the red, long-sleeve shirt that is his trademark, cast his ballot at the 23rd of January housing development, not far from the presidential palace.

"I feel very happy, very happy," he said. He added that with this election, he has faced off against his opponents four times, including his first win in 1998, an election in 2000 after the Constitution was changed to permit him to be elected to a six-year term, and a 2004 recall referendum that left his foes demoralized.

He also took a moment to tout the surge of leftist leaders in the region. "I think it's a good sign," he said.

With oil prices having reached historic highs, and Chavez's Fifth Republic Movement in control of the National Assembly and other institutions, the government has funneled billions of dollars into education, health and nutrition programs. Venezuela's economy has been roaring, growing at 18 percent in 2004 and 9.3 percent last year.

Although private investment has dwindled and half of Venezuelans work in the black market, the government's spending has put money in banks and in people's pockets. Business sectors dependent upon government contracts are booming, and the stock index Friday had its biggest increase in nearly four years with the belief Chavez would win.

In Cano Amarillo, a working-class neighborhood near downtown Caracas, several people said they voted for the president, overlooking concerns they had about crime and his combative style.

"I think the president has done what he said he would do," Jose Medina, 54, a schoolteacher, said moments after casting his vote. "He's put the social policies above everything else. There is still much to do, but he's made sure the state reaches the poorest."

The opposition, which has suffered a series of setbacks since the coup, had hoped to appeal to voters by focusing on issues such as spiraling crime, alleged corruption and unchecked spending. Rosales, 53, governor of Zulia state, the historic heart of Venezuela's oil industry, had proposed a populist handout program to cut into Chavez's support base.

"The future of Venezuela is at stake," Rosales told supporters as he cast his ballot Sunday morning.

The opposition, though, faced a formidable machine in Chavez's government.

Public workers raised allegations that the government pressured them for support, and Chavez was constantly present on state-run television.

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