President Hugo Chavez's top rival survived a tough test Sunday, winning re-election as governor, but he allowed that losses in other state-level races were a "tough moment" for Venezuela's opposition.
Henrique Capriles, the prominent opposition leader whose political life was on the line after losing his presidential bid to Chavez in October, won re-election as Miranda state governor. But Chavez's party gained four other governorships, said electoral officials in this OPEC nation with the world's top proven oil reserves.
"Our (opposition candidates) have lost some ground. But they are no less leaders than they were yesterday," Capriles said.
"We are going to reach the dream that we have. This is a tough moment, but there are opportunities in every tough moment."
In the country's 23 states, the socialist ruling party won 20 of the top state posts while the opposition held onto three including Miranda, the electoral council said. That meant Chavez's supporters took back four governorships of the seven the opposition had held.
The elections were overshadowed by the health of Chavez, who was improving and already "giving instructions" from his bed in Havana as he continues to recover from cancer surgery, a Venezuelan cabinet member said earlier.
"As of yesterday, El Comandante had already resumed communicating with us, giving instructions, governing in fact, giving instructions to be implemented in our country," said Science and Technology Minister Jorge Arreaza.
"He continues to recover, positively, day after day, hour after hour," Arreaza, husband of Chavez's eldest daughter, said in a phone call broadcast on state television. Both have been with the president in Havana.
Chavez, 58, earlier "urged all Venezuelans, especially patriotic ones... to exercise their duty and right to vote today to consolidate all the areas that will help us keep moving forward on social justice," the minister added.
Despite an opposition on the ropes, Capriles is still likely breathing a sigh of relief; after his loss in the presidential poll he is keen to consolidate his status as leader of an array of parties that oppose Chavez, a garrulous former paratrooper who has thoroughly dominated this nation since first being elected in 1999.
Arreaza had already declared in the run-up to the elections on Saturday that Chavez was fully in control of his mental faculties and that his health was "improving" after six hours of surgery on Tuesday.
Chavez claimed earlier this year, before embarking on his successful but arduous re-election campaign, that he was cancer-free.
But he was forced to tell the nation a week ago that he had suffered a recurrence of the disease and announced that he would have to return to Cuba, a key Venezuelan ally, for surgery.
Venezuela has never clearly stated what type of cancer Chavez has, nor what organs are affected, but doctors removed a tumor from his pelvic region last year.
Aides admitted that Chavez experienced "complications" from this most recent surgery, including bleeding that now appears to be under control.
Chavez is due to be sworn in for a third presidential term on January 10, but the country is now on tenterhooks to see if the outspoken, formerly tireless leader will remain their president, become incapacitated, or worse.
He has named foreign minister and vice president Nicolas Maduro as both his temporary replacement and hand-picked successor.
Maduro on Sunday urged Venezuelans to get out and vote for the ruling party so as "not to disappoint Chavez."
Retired Cuban leader Fidel Castro also said in a letter to the Venezuelan people, which Maduro read out on state television, that Chavez's "doctors are optimistic as they work hard" to help him recover fully.