By Daniel Wallis and Andrew Cawthorne
CARACAS, Dec 8 (Reuters) - President Nicolas Maduro's government won a majority of votes in Venezuela's local elections on Sunday, boosting his quest to preserve the late Hugo Chavez's socialist legacy and denting the opposition's hopes for change.
With three-quarters of the South American nation's 337 mayoralties counted, the ruling party took 196, or 44.16 percent of votes, compared with the opposition coalition's 53 municipalities, or 40.56 percent, the election board said.
Since taking power in April, Maduro, a 51-year-old former bus driver, has faced a plethora of economic problems including the highest inflation in the Americas, shortages of basic goods from milk to toilet paper, and slowing growth.
Yet an aggressive campaign since early November to force businesses to slash prices proved popular with consumers, especially the poor, and helped Maduro's candidates on Sunday.
"The father of the revolution has gone, but he left the son who continued helping the poor," said government supporter and pensioner Freddy Navarro, 62, in Caracas.
Sunday's election was the biggest political test yet for Maduro, who narrowly won a presidential vote after Chavez's death from cancer ended his 14-year rule of the OPEC nation.
Winning the overall vote share may help Maduro shake off perceptions of weakness, enabling him to exert more authority over the different factions in the ruling Socialist Party and perhaps take unpopular measures such as a currency devaluation.
"The Venezuelan people have said to the world that the Bolivarian revolution continues stronger than ever," Maduro said in a late-night speech, referring to Chavez's self-styled movement named for independence hero Simon Bolivar.
As expected, the opposition performed well in big urban centers, keeping the principal mayorship of the capital, Caracas, and that of Venezuela's second city, Maracaibo.
But their failure to win the overall vote share was a blow to opposition leader Henrique Capriles' claim that he leads a majority. Capriles had repeatedly called for the vote to be seen as a referendum on Maduro's performance.
Opponents portray Maduro as a buffoonish autocrat with none of his predecessor's political savvy and say his continuation of statist economic policies - including the crackdown on retailers for alleged price-gouging - are disastrous.
Opposition activists alleged some irregularities on Sunday, including intimidation of some observers and the use of state oil company PDVSA's vehicles to ferry pro-government voters.
The opposition's next chances to gain political ground are 2015 parliamentary elections and a signature drive for a recall referendum on Maduro in 2016. Some anti-government activists are pressing for more action, like street protests.
Since taking office, Maduro has maintained core support among "Chavistas" by keeping his popular welfare programs and repeating his rhetoric and politics.
Opponents, and some economists, say Maduro's price-cutting measures smack of short-term populism that do nothing to fix what they consider the roots of Venezuela's economic mess: persecution of the private sector, inefficiency and graft in state businesses, an over-valued bolivar and excessive controls.
"I'm against what they're doing. We need change," said graphic designer and opposition supporter Lisandro Leon, 47.
Voting was largely peaceful, though one newspaper reported a woman was shot dead in a queue in a western state.