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Chavez wins third term with over 54% of vote

CARACAS, Venezuela -- Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez shrugged off cancer and a unified opposition to triumph yet again at the ballot box and claim another six-year mandate to pursue his oil-funded socialist revolution.

Sunday proved a sterner test than previous elections in Chavez's 14-year tenure, but the bombastic anti-American leftist emerged victorious again despite health scares, growing discontent and a strong opposition challenge.

With nearly all the votes counted, Chavez had 7,731,972, or 54.66 percent, compared to 6,327,429, or 44.73 percent, for his youthful opponent, former Miranda state governor Henrique Capriles.

In 2006, Chavez's margin of victory was 27 points.

Addressing thousands of cheering supporters from the balcony of his Miraflores presidential residence, Chavez sang the national anthem and vowed to be a better president.

“Viva Venezuela! Viva the fatherland!” exulted the leftist leader. “The battle was perfect and the victory was perfect.”

“I want to include everybody, including sectors of the opposition,” the 58-year-old Chavez, wearing his trademark red shirt, said in a tacit acceptance of the best electoral showing against him yet.

But, brandishing the sword of his 19th century idol, independence hero Simon Bolivar, he pledged to press ahead with a socialist revolution that has antagonized opponents, both at home and abroad.

“Venezuela will continue its march toward the democratic socialism of the 21st century,” he said.

Chavez declared himself free of cancer in July and intensified his campaign this past week, holding rallies across the country, even dancing and singing in the rain before hundreds of thousands of supporters on Thursday.

In his victory speech, he alluded only briefly to his cancer battle.

“Today was a memorable day,” he said. “I thank God and ask him life and health to keep serving the Venezuelan people.”

Chavez's rival, 40-year-old Capriles, was gracious in defeat, saying: “I accept and respect the decision of the people.”

The youthful state governor put on a brave face, hailing his “house-by-house” campaign as the start of a long road to changing the direction of the country.

“I gave it my all and I'm proud of what we built,” a subdued Capriles told supporters at his campaign headquarters.

“I will continue to work for Venezuela.”

But it was a bitter pill for many in the divided country to swallow. Some 200 Capriles supporters, many in tears and disbelief, massed outside his campaign headquarters.

“I am disappointed, devastated,” Daniela Torrealba, 33, told AFP. Chavez's victory means six more years of “uncertainty and stagnation,” he said.

Capriles had vowed to seriously address violent crime that has spun out of control, streamline a patronage-bloated bureaucracy and end rampant corruption, but his promises proved inadequate against Chavez's charisma, well-oiled political machine and legacy of putting Venezuela's poor first with generous social welfare programs.

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Supporters of Hugo Chavez celebrate in Caracas after receiving news of his re-election. (AP/AFP)

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