By Andrew Cawthorne
CARACAS (Reuters) - Hugo Chavez's supporters dedicated their sweeping regional election win to the absent Venezuelan president and turned attention back on Monday to his fight to recover from cancer surgery in Cuba.
Helped by sympathy for Chavez, the ruling Socialist Party swept the board in Sunday's vote, winning 20 out of 23 state governorships in the South American OPEC nation.
"That was the people's present for their commander, painting the country red," said the party's national election coordinator Jorge Rodriguez.
Government candidates cut the opposition's previous control of seven states to just three - but there was some compensation for the anti-Chavez bloc in its standard-bearer Henrique Capriles' retention of Miranda governorship.
That left Capriles, a 40-year-old career politician and lawyer by training, as the opposition's clear candidate-in-waiting should Chavez's condition spark a new election.
Though celebrating his Miranda win, Capriles acknowledged the overall national results were bad for the opposition. He accused the government of abusing state resources and exploiting emotions over Chavez's health during the campaign.
"We Venezuelans pray for the president's health, but he is in Cuba and Venezuela's problems need answers," Capriles added, criticizing high crime and jobless rates.
NEW PRESIDENTIAL POLL?
In office since 1999, Chavez is due to start a new term on January 10 after beating Capriles in October's presidential vote.
But he has named a successor, Vice President Nicolas Maduro, in case he is incapacitated, a scenario that would trigger a new poll within 30 days in the nation of 29 million people.
Though past surveys have shown Capriles to be more popular than any other senior officials, Chavez's personal blessing for Maduro could transform the situation by firing up emotional supporters who would view him as a proxy for their leader.
"Should there be a presidential vote soon, there is no doubt Capriles is favorite to represent the opposition, but he has a tough challenge," local pollster Luis Vicente Leon said.
Chavez has not been seen or heard from since a few days before last Tuesday's six-hour operation - his fourth for a cancer initially diagnosed in the pelvic region in mid-2011.
Officials say initial complications have been surpassed, and Chavez is slowly recovering, able to speak and give orders.
Yet they have given no medical details, so speculation is rife the surgery may have left him in a grave state and the cancer may have spread.
Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro, himself battling health problems for the last six years, has been at his friend and protege's bedside, presumably at Havana's Cimeq hospital.
Sunday's election illustrated the continuing popularity of Chavez who is adored by many poor Venezuelans for his humble roots and oil-fuelled welfare programs, though denounced as a dangerous autocrat by opponents.
Though Venezuelans complain loudly about a litany of daily problems, from power cuts and potholes to murder rates and kickbacks, the power of Chavez's personality once again appeared to trump those concerns.
"There was a clear surge in sympathy votes," New York-based Jefferies' managing director Siobhan Morden said, adding that Capriles' win by just four percentage points was not an "ideal" platform for a potential challenge against Maduro.
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(Editing by Doina Chiacu)