By Patricia Velez and Andrew Cawthorne
CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela's ruling Socialist Party and allies took 10 percentage points more votes than opposition rivals in Sunday's election for mayors that was a test of strength for President Nicolas Maduro, final results showed on Friday.
Though the ballot for mayors in the South American nation was a symbolic victory for Maduro's sometimes shaky-looking presidency, it also underlined the strength of his opponents in urban centers and the deep divisions of Venezuelan society.
The election board said pro-government candidates won 54 percent of the total, garnering 242 mayoralties at Sunday's ballot. The opposition Democratic Unity coalition and its partners took 44 percent, winning 75 mayoralties.
The final results, which reflected the government's greater strength in rural areas where there are more mayoralties, was a wider win for the socialists than the 6.5 percentage points given in first results hours after the vote.
Though disappointed in not winning an overall vote majority, opposition leader Henrique Capriles and others on his side have taken solace from winning most of the biggest cities, including the capital Caracas and the second city Maracaibo.
They even took Barinas, capital of the home state of the late Hugo Chavez, Maduro's predecessor.
"It was a lukewarm triumph for 'Chavismo', spoilt by the opposition's win in symbolic cities," local pollster Luis Vicente Leon said, referring to the movement named for Chavez.
The opposition had appeared to be heading for a better result until Maduro launched a populist "economic offensive" in early November, sending soldiers and inspectors into shops to force retailers to reduce prices.
Venezuela's inflation rate of 54 percent annually is the highest in the Americas and was weighing on Maduro's popularity. But the measures reversed his ratings dips and seem to have won his candidates votes last weekend, even though some economists believe they will worsen the structural economic problems.
"He went on the attack and turned things round completely," a senior Maduro ally, Interior Minister Miguel Rodriguez Torres, told Reuters, of the impact Maduro's drive against businesses had on the local elections.
Venezuelans are waiting to see if Maduro will now use his political breathing space to introduce some unpopular measures such as a currency devaluation.
His main challenge going into 2014 is the economy.
Growth has slowed, the local bolivar currency is trading on the black market at 10 times its official rate, and there are scarcities of basic goods from flour to toilet paper because importers say they cannot access enough foreign currency.
After four elections in just over a year - two presidential votes, one governors' election and the municipal polls - Venezuelan voters now have a respite until the end of 2015 when they will elect a new parliament.
Capriles, the governor of Miranda state who narrowly lost the April presidential vote, may come under pressure from within the opposition for his failure to deliver better results at Sunday's vote, which he had cast as a plebiscite.
Several other opposition leaders have advocated more confrontational tactics, such as street protests, against Maduro whom they cast as an autocrat taking instructions from Cuba and leading Venezuela's economy to ruin.
"The most noteworthy impact of the election result has been to turn the tables on Democratic Unity leader Henrique Capriles ... who now find himself under scrutiny for his ability to lead the 30-party opposition coalition," wrote Michael Henderson, of global risk forecaster Maplecroft's.
"By contrast, in political terms the 8 December result has handed President Maduro a temporary reprieve ... the chances of a near-term challenge to his leadership have diminished."
(Editing by Brian Ellsworth and Kenneth Barry)
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