CARACAS, Venezuela — A veteran of Venezuela's long-suffering political opposition compared Sunday's presidential election to a soccer game played on a hill.
Opposition candidate Henrique Capriles defended a parking lot-sized goal on the downhill half while President Hugo Chavez's team manned a pixie goal on the uphill side, said Ramon Guillermo Aveledo.
"And the referees also kicked the ball for him," Aveledo said of the incumbent.
As Chavez prepares to begin a fourth term, Chavez has shown no signs he'll tweak the incumbent advantages that many say helped him defeat his strongest challenger ever. Those include an enormous party structure, government aid programs and an army of civil servants.
Capriles said at a news conference on Tuesday that the campaign involved a "gigantic dirty war" and that he went into the race with significant disadvantages.
"I was up against a candidate with more resources," Capriles told reporters. "All the machinery of the state was used to try to destroy me. All sorts of things were said about me. ... But we conquered 6 million wills."
In the face of such obstacles, the opposition now faces the daunting task of protecting its hard-won unity over the next six long years of Chavez's presidency, during which the leader's political advantages could grow.
Capriles did score historic gains by winning 44 percent of the vote. It was the opposition's best showing yet against Chavez in a presidential election.
"It's not a formidable defeat for the opposition, nor is it a big triumph for Chavismo," said Mariana Bacalao, a political science professor at Central University of Venezuela. "Never has the opposition been so strong."
In the days since the vote, Chavez has said he'd like to work with his opponents to unite the country.
The president called Capriles after the election, saying later that it was a pleasant conversation and that they even "joked at one point."
Recalling the chat, Capriles said he insisted on "dialogue in the country, the unity of the country,"
"To try to say that 6.5 million people are an elite, I think that's not recognizing reality," Capriles said, referring to Chavez's frequent insults of his opponents as "the bourgeoisie" and "oligarchs." He said that he told Chavez "we're willing to help the government" and that Chavez told the opposition leader his campaign was "a great effort."
Capriles said the president should recognize that with so much of the country supporting the opposition, he should lead "a government for all Venezuelans."
"Dialogue is our spirit," Chavez said at a news conference at the presidential palace. He urged the opposition "to speak clearly to the country and show a will for coexistence."
Vice President Elias Jaua said: "Venezuela needs a responsible opposition."
But some say the odds are so stacked that the opposition will struggle, and could fracture and fail to build on its historic gains. Despite the conciliatory words, some also expect the president will resume his political attacks, as he's done after previous peace offers.
"I'm very disappointed because I was convinced that (Capriles) was going to win," business owner Gonzalo Ramos said Tuesday, looking depressed at a plaza in the upscale Altamira district. "Now I don't see much future, neither in the opposition nor the country."
At Capriles' campaign night event, supporters wept and hugged each other in consolation when the results were announced.
Government adversaries won't have much more time to mope. They'll have to gear up for gubernatorial elections in December and convince the rank-and-file that not all has been lost. The opposition has tended to fare better in votes against Chavez's allies rather than against the president himself, so they could still hope to make gains, as they have in governorships and legislative seats since the last presidential election in 2006.
But the election results showed that Chavez will be a tough opponent in the state elections, with the president winning a majority of votes in 21 of 23 states plus the capital district of Caracas.
Some analysts say any opposition divisions to emerge after Capriles' loss would help Chavez's allies. So far, opposition leaders have maintained at least a public show of unity.
"Recrimination over their electoral defeat could produce fissures," said Miguel Tinker Salas, a Latin American studies professor at Pomona College in Claremont, California.
Divergences over political ideology could also fracture the opposition coalition, with some conservative parties that had lined up behind Capriles already complaining about his center-left stances.
"One of the main factors impeding unity is the lack of real consensus on an alternative proposal for the nation that can challenge the Chavez government," Tinker Salas said.
Despite the skepticism, Capriles dismissed suggestions that infighting could compromise the opposition's unity. The opposition held its first ever presidential primary in February and promptly closed ranks behind Capriles, the winner.
"Without a doubt, we have very big political capital that cannot be lost," Capriles said. "Our unity remains and our unity should be strengthened."
What will surely continue is the government machine built by Chavez that many say has won the president 14 years of loyalty. That includes at least 2.4 million national government employees, making up 8 percent of the country's population. By comparison, the United States, with tenfold the population, has almost the same number of federal employees, at 2.7 million.
Chavez ramped up public spending in the run-up to the election, building public housing and bankrolling social programs. Venezuela has the largest proven oil reserves in the world and received hundreds of billions of dollars in oil revenue over the past decade.
Retired electrician Manuel Millan said he could see the Chavez campaign all around him before the vote. Indeed, Chavez's image and slogans are everywhere in this country of 29 million people, from street posts to the uniforms of customs agents inspecting foreign visitors.
"The Chavez machinery was very big – vehicles, posters, TV broadcasts," Millan said. "The other candidate almost didn't have any of it."
Capriles complained that during the campaign the electoral council did nothing while Chavez regularly used his powers as president to take over the airwaves for appearances. "Why couldn't they have been regulated?" Capriles said.
For the moment, it appears Capriles will remain the opposition's top figure despite his loss.
He said he will be working hard as the gubernatorial elections approach, though he hasn't yet decided whether he will run for re-election in Miranda state, which includes part of Caracas. "I'm going to do everything in my reach for all the candidates for governor and mayor to win."
Despite Sunday's setback, many opposition supporters still see Capriles as the country's best bet for a brighter future – without Chavez.
As journalists mingled outside Capriles' campaign headquarters Monday, a young woman leaned out the window of a passing car and shouted: "I love you! Until the next one!"
Associated Press writers Jorge Rueda, Ian James, Fabiola Sanchez and Vivian Sequera contributed to this report.
Christopher Toothaker on Twitter: http://twitter.com/ctoothaker