* Opposition takes more than a third of seats * Ballot sets stage for 2012 presidential election * Opposition claims majority of popular vote
(Adds market reaction, edits throughout)
By Frank Jack Daniel and Patricia Rondon
CARACAS, Sept 27 (Reuters) - Venezuela's opposition won a
third of the seats in parliament and claimed a majority of the
popular vote in elections on Sunday, boosting its hopes of
defeating President Hugo Chavez at the next presidential poll
Although Chavez's Socialist Party retained a majority in
the 165-seat National Assembly, it fell short of its goal of
keeping at least the two thirds it needs to pass major laws or
make appointments to the Supreme Court and electoral
authorities without the support of its political foes.
As results came through early on Monday, the newly-united
opposition Democratic Unity umbrella group said it had won 52
percent of the overall vote. If confirmed, that would be a
symbolic blow to Chavez in the 12th year of his rule of South
America's biggest oil exporter.
"We are the majority!" sang opposition supporters after the
tallies were announced overnight.
The polls were watched closely by investors with money in
Venezuelan debt, which offers very high yields. Its benchmark
2027 global bond jumped on the news from polling centers.
"This is a huge result for the opposition. They exceeded
even their own expectations," David Smilde, a Venezuela expert
from the University of Georgia, told Reuters.
Following years of defeats and missteps, and a boycott of
the last parliamentary poll five years ago, opposition leaders
will now focus on trying to topple the man they call an
autocrat at the ballot box in 2012.
With final results still coming in, however, Chavez was
close to the three-fifths of seats needed to give him special
decree powers that he could use to bypass parliament and drive
forward his socialist reforms.
Election authorities said on Monday that his Socialist
Party won at least 94 seats in the Assembly and that Democratic
Unity took at least 60 seats. Five seats went to other parties
and the results from the remaining six were not yet in.
A baseball-mad former tank soldier who rose from a poor
rural childhood, Chavez first tried to take power in a 1992
coup and has lost only one election since he won the presidency
at the ballot box in 1998.
The 56-year-old has since become one of the world's most
recognizable politicians, taking the crown from Cuba's Fidel
Castro as the leading critic of Washington in Latin America,
and nationalizing the assets of foreign oil companies.
CHAVEZ "IMPOSSIBLE TO PREDICT"
Chavez is widely accused of using bullying tactics against
his opponents, although he can argue his democratic credentials
are burnished by the opposition gains in Sunday's vote.
He is still the country's most popular politician, but his
approval ratings have been hit by a deep recession, a soaring
violent crime rate and electricity shortages.
An electoral council source backed the opposition's claim
of winning 52 percent of the popular vote, and the outcome was
welcomed by investors in Venezuela's popular bonds.
Debt issued by the government and state oil company PDVSA
offers particular high yields for those willing to bear what
some consider a significant chance of default.
In early trading on Monday, its benchmark 2027 global bond
VENGLB27=RR price rose 3.5 percent to bid 73.00.
The election was essentially a referendum on Chavez's rule,
and he sought to put a brave face on the results, declaring via
Twitter overnight that it was a "new victory for the people."
His ruling party had always been likely to get a higher
percentage of seats than votes, due to changes in electoral
districts and voting rules that favored it.
Facing the prospect of negotiating with politicians he
views as bourgeois capitalists, Chavez may yet move to curb
parliament's influence. He could devolve some powers to
community groups that are loyal to him, or pass legislation
before the new parliamentarians take office in January.
Analysts are unsure whether he might now radicalize his
self-styled "Bolivarian Revolution," named for independence
hero Simon Bolivar, or soften policies to appeal to the many
who voted against him.
"He has always been impossible to predict," said a senior
Western diplomat in Caracas.
The election result signals the unofficial start of the
presidential race in which Chavez hopes to extend what will by
then be nearly 14 years in power. For the opposition, it gives
them their first major presence in the Assembly for years.
"It's going to be a hostile parliament, that's for sure,"
Guillermo Miguelena, the Caracas secretary-general of the
opposition Democratic Action Party, told Reuters.
"Now we need to keep the unity we have achieved."
(Additional reporting by Andrew Cawthorne, Enrique Andres
Pretel, Deisy Buitrago, Eyanir Chinea, Marianna Parraga;
Editing by Kieran Murray)