As polling started, Maduro reminded Venezuelans in a tweet to celebrate "a day of loyalty and love towards Chavez and the Motherland".

In a major boost to his personal popularity and economic policies, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s party swept the nationwide elections for mayoralties and local councils on Sunday. With 60 percent votes counted, the ruling Socialist Party had won more than 49 percent ballots, while the joint opposition managed to get support from just 42 percent voters.

Sunday's elections coincided with the anniversary of late President Hugo Chavez's famous speech last year in which he announced that his cancer had returned and named Maduro as his successor. As polling started, Maduro reminded Venezuelans in a tweet to celebrate "a day of loyalty and love towards Chavez and the Motherland".

The election for 337 mayors and 2,000 city councilors was seen as a major political test for Maduro, who has tightened state control over private businesses and retailers in recent months. It was also a big challenge for the opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who was trying to double the number of municipalities controlled by his coalition.

In the end, the Sunday election turned out to be a big victory for Maduro.

“The Venezuelan people have said to the world that the Bolivarian revolution continues stronger than ever,” Maduro said in a post-election speech, referring to Chavez's movement named after the independence hero Simon Bolivar. Addressing a massive rally of his supporters in Bolivar Square in downtown Caracas on late Sunday night, Maduro mocked Capriles and urged him to resign. “They underestimate us. They call me a donkey; there is social racism,” he said. "They said that today was a plebiscite and that Maduro would have to leave the presidency after today.”

With his popularity on the surge due to strong price control measures like forcing super-market chains to sell goods at cheaper prices, Maduro seems to have passed a big hurdle and cemented his position as a successor to Chavez. As the opposition branded these local elections as a plebiscite on Maduro’s performance and the socialist legacy of Chavez, the Venezuelan president is now likely to take more stringent measures against private businesses, whom he accuses of waging an “economic war” against his government with the help of the United States.

Soon after the election results began to trickle in on Sunday night, Maduro pledged to deepen his "economic offensive" to force businesses to cut prices. “This week we are going to deepen the economic offensive to help the working class and protect the middle class,” Maduro told supporters at the rally in Caracas. “This week it's going to be the housing and food sectors. We're going in with guns blazing, keep an eye out.”

In November, Maduro, who won the presidential election in April with a slender margin over Capriles, began a crackdown on retail chains, forcing them to slash prices of electronic goods, automobile parts and home hardware. As hundreds of thousands of people rushed to stores to pick cheap LCDs and laptops, Maduro’s personal approval rate jumped sharply. Within weeks, Maduro extended his economic offensive by ordering controls on rent of commercial buildings such as shopping malls.

Since November, Maduro has been ruling by decree, promising to tackle corruption and control price rises. With inflation hitting 54 percent and scarcities of basic products from wheat flour to milk spawning queues around the country, the economic problems had been weighing on Maduro's ratings. But instead of giving in to the demand of private businesses to “open up” the economy, Maduro began an aggressive drive to inspect shops and businesses suspected of price-gouging and arrests of several dozen retailers.

The opposition accuses him of failing to deal with crime, inflation and a shortage of basic goods. Some economists say Maduro's price-cutting measures smack of short-term populism that do nothing to fix what they consider the roots of economic problems.

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