President Hugo Chavez's allies have won a sweeping victory in Venezuela's gubernatorial elections, capturing a large majority of states and showing their ruling party still has muscle even as cancer has put the socialist leader's future in question.

Chavez's movement won 20 of 23 states, according to results announced by electoral council. Opposition leader Henrique Capriles held on for a re-election win in Miranda state, one of three opposition candidates declared winners.

Capriles lost to Chavez in the country's October presidential election, and his re-election as governor on Sunday will allow him to cement his position as Venezuela's dominant opposition leader.

But the loss of ground by other opposition candidates raises tough questions for government adversaries as they prepare for the possibility of new presidential elections if cancer cuts short Chavez's tenure.

The opposition lost five of the governorships it previously held, including the country's most populous state, Zulia.

'Map painted red'

The timing of the elections, just five days after Chavez's latest cancer surgery in Cuba on Tuesday, appeared to benefit the Chavistas.

Jorge Rodriguez, campaign manager for the pro-Chavez camp, hailed the victory saying it represented "the map painted red" — the colour of Chavez's socialist party.

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Miranda state Gov. Henrique Capriles arrives at a news conference after being re-elected during Venezuela's regional elections in Caracas. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)

"It really does underscore the fact that Chavismo really can survive, at least at the regional level, without Chavez," said Miguel Tinker Salas, a Latin American studies professor at Pomona College in Claremont, California.

"The reality is that the Chavistas today proved that their movement is institutionalized enough to sustain itself and to win statehouses in almost 90 per cent of Venezuela."

The vote was the first in Chavez's nearly 14-year-old presidency in which he has been unable to actively campaign. He hasn't spoken publicly since undergoing surgery on Tuesday.

The strong showing by pro-Chavez candidates could help them deepen his socialist policies, including a drive to fortify grass-roots citizen councils that are directly funded by the central government.

Capriles beat Elias Jaua, Chavez's former vice-president, to win Miranda state, which includes part of the capital of Caracas. His supporters celebrated shouting with their hands in the air while fireworks exploded overhead.

Capriles told supporters in a victory speech that "it's difficult to come here and show a smile."

"This is a difficult moment, but in every difficult moment opportunities emerge," Capriles said, wearing a track suit emblazoned with the yellow, blue and red of the Venezuelan flag. "We have to strengthen ourselves more."

Low voter turnout

The 53 per cent voter turnout was considerably lower than the more than 80 per cent who cast ballots in October's presidential vote, when Chavez won another six-year term.

Some said the closeness of the vote to Christmas and apparent apathy among some voters contributed to the relatively low turnout.

'I think with Chavez sick…it makes them think what would things be like without Chavez.' —David Smilde, University of Georgia

Ricardo Mendez, a bus driver who voted for Jaua, said: "It seems like people are more interested in getting ready for Christmas than anything else."

Chavez's political allies had framed the elections as a referendum on his legacy, urging people to dedicate the vote to the president, who was in Cuba with his children after his fourth cancer-related operation for an undisclosed type of pelvic cancer.

Banners went up on lampposts ahead of the vote reading "Now more than ever, with Chavez."

David Smilde, a University of Georgia sociology professor, said the president's candidates benefited from Venezuelans' uncertainty about a future without Chavez and fears of losing benefits they've accrued under him.

"I think with Chavez sick…it makes them think what would things be like without Chavez," Smilde said. "People are thinking of their own interest."

Dry run for presidential elections

The elections were seen as an important dry run for new presidential elections if cancer prevents Chavez from continuing. His supporters and opponents alike raised the possibility of a new presidential vote soon as they stood chatting while waiting to vote.

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Venezuela's Vice-President Nicolas Maduro arrives at a news conference in Caracas on Sunday. Hugo Chavez said before undergoing surgery that if he's unable to continue, Maduro should take his place and run for president. (Edwin Montilva/Reuters)

Chavez is due to be sworn in for another six-year term on Jan. 10. But if his condition forces him to step down, Venezuela's constitution requires that new presidential elections be called promptly and held within 30 days.

Chavez said before undergoing the surgery that if he's unable to continue, Maduro should take his place and run for president.

Tinker Salas said that their showing in the gubernatorial races means that in the event of a presidential vote, Chavez's allies would go into it with strong campaign machinery.

The opposition also continues to be stymied by "the lack of a clear programmatic alternative to Chavez," Tinker Salas said.

He pointed out that Capriles tried to campaign against Chavez in the presidential vote espousing more moderate policies akin to those of former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, including keeping social programs for the poor, and he still lost.

"In this election, except for their dislike of Chavez, most candidates did not offer an alternative," he said.