If Hugo Chavez intends on grabbing full power in Venezuela, it looks as though he has a short window of time in which to do so.  His party and leadership got rebuked by voters in yesterday’s election as Chavez lost the supermajority in the legislature necessary for him to rule by decree.  The opposition gained a majority in the popular vote, perhaps sending a signal that Chavez may be on his way out in 2012 if elections get held as scheduled:

Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez suffered a major political blow in congressional elections, losing the ability to pass new laws at will after opposition candidates banded together.

Mr. Chávez still enjoys a congressional majority after winning at least 95 of the 165 seats. But opposition candidates won at least 59 seats, enough to strip Mr. Chávez of a two-thirds majority—the threshold needed to pass sweeping legislation in the congress. More importantly, the opposition says it won 52% of the popular vote which will give them momentum going into the 2012 presidential elections. “We are the majority,” said Ramón Guillermo Aveledo, an opposition director. …

“A new cycle begins today,” said Carlos Ocariz, the opposition mayor of Petare, a sprawling mostly slum district that was once a Chávez stronghold, but which elected an opposition deputy on Sunday. “Chávez’s rollercoaster is going down.”

That’s probably true — as long as Chavez doesn’t change the rules of the game first.  He has three months before the next legislature takes its seats, which means Chavez can still use the lame-duck session to pass whatever he wants.  He has not exactly been shy about using that process for his own ends before this, and it may mean that most of the damage the opposition hoped to avoid with a victory will already be a fait accompli by the time they arrive.

How did Chavez manage to lose the election in the first place?  Despite having a still-significant popularity in Venezuela, especially among the poor, the economy has rattled his power base.  Oil prices are high, but Venezuela still has energy shortages from lack of refining and electrical production.  Inflation has caught fire, rising as high as 30%, which has a tremendously regressive impact.  Meanwhile, his socialist worker’s paradise has had the usual problems in efficiency and accountability; one recent scandal, the Wall Street Journal reports, involved the delay in distributing food from government-run centers until it had rotted into uselessness.

Chavez may have suffered a setback, but he has overcome those in the past, usually with a combination of charm and brute force.  If he can’t feed the people and can’t keep the lights on in Venezuela, he can still use his near-dictatorial powers to ensure that the opposition doesn’t stick around long.