Chavez heirs in Venezuela 'must adapt to survive'

Caracas (AFP) - It was meant to be a revolution, but now the wheels risk coming off "Chavism," the socialist movement that made Venezuela a beacon of leftist leadership at odds with the United States.

Two years after the death of its red-bereted founding father Hugo Chavez, his "Bolivarian revolution" has just suffered its biggest electoral blow yet.

Having lost control of the state legislature in elections on Sunday, it must adapt to survive, analysts say.

"The way Chavism has done things up to now is at an end," said Benigno Alarcon, a political scientist at Andres Bello Catholic University in Caracas.

The PSUV gained 5.6 million votes overall, while the MUD won 7.7 million in Sunday's election.

Its defeat with just 55 of the 167 seats in the legislative National Assembly "does not mean the end of Chavism, which is still a very strong political movement", he said.

"But the only way it can survive and recover is by adapting to the democratic rules of the game and not to hegemony, which is no longer possible."

Chavez largely nationalized Venezuela's oil industry and used petrol revenues to build public housing and fund other social programs for poor Venezuelans.

That move, and the leader's fiery rhetoric against "Yankee imperialism" riled Washington and its allies.

- Saving Chavismo -

Chavez's rise to power in elections in 1998, a few years after trying to take power in a failed coup, came at the start of a period of leftist rule in various Latin American countries.

The face of "Commander Chavez" in his military beret still stares out from countless murals and posters.

The Chavist PSUV party under President Nicolas Maduro currently controls all the big state organs of power including the assembly. But that will now be controlled by a majority of the opposition coalition MUD.

Maduro admitted the election result was "a blow."

The PSUV now has to focus on "the survival of Chavismo," said Elsa Cardozo, a political scientist at Simon Bolivar University.

After 16 years of supremacy over a divided opposition, she said the PSUV must now open up to a proper two-party system.

Chavez was loved by many Venezuelans for championing the poor.

But plunging oil prices have crippled the country since Maduro was elected in 2013 after Chavez's death from cancer.

Voters punished him for an economic crisis that has families suffering shortages of basic foods and goods.

Softening the combative tone that had marked his electoral campaign, Maduro said "a new stage has begun" and it was time for "constructive self-criticism" in his party.

He promised to "build a new revolutionary majority" and called on his allies to "close ranks in civil-military union."

Analysts said there were signs of division in Maduro's camp, however.

Political scientist Maria Teresa Romero in an online article foresaw "a deepening of the divisions within Chavism, particularly between the military group... and the civil group commanded by the president."

The jubilant opposition said urgent economic reforms were needed.

Voters said they were sick of standing in line for hours to buy cooking oil or sugar and finding no eggs or toilet paper in the shops.

The MUD has claimed a two-thirds majority in the assembly.

If confirmed, that could enable it to take constitutional measures to try to depose Maduro, dealing a further blow to Chavismo.

"This is an opportunity for Chavism to modernize and turn itself into a more open political organization," said Cardozo.

"If the only thing it leaves behind is a lack of government, economic collapse, scarcity and insecurity, that does not offer much hope of recovery."