Venezuelans vote in election test for Chávez

Venezuelans voted into the night on Sunday in state elections that test President Hugo Chávez’s 10-year grip on power as he seeks to renew a socialist drive in the Opec nation despite falling oil prices.

Although popular with the poor, Chávez lost a referendum vote on a major constitutional overhaul to give him wider powers last year and needs his allies to score clear victories so he can try again to pass reforms allowing him to stay in office after his term ends in 2013.

The anti-US leader of Latin America’s radical left won 20 of Venezuela’s 22 states in the last regional elections four years ago. He is set to gain a majority again but the strength of his win hinges on several states where he appears to have only a slim lead. He said he would accept any result.

Fireworks, blaring music and pre-dawn bugle calls woke voters, who formed long lines at polling stations that stayed open after nightfall to deal with what appeared to be a high turnout.

Opposition activists complained about polling stations staying open late, worried that it would give Chavez’s Socialist Party time to mobilise more voters.

Chavez (54) voted in a famously left-wing district of Caracas and said he will drive forward his program of deep reforms to institutions and high social spending even though oil has fallen to $50 a barrel from a peak of $147 in July.

”Even with oil prices at $50 or even less, the Venezuelan economy will keep moving forward, nothing will stop the advance of Venezuela and the construction of Bolivarian socialism,” said Chávez’, who is inspired by 19th century Latin American independence hero Simon Bolivar.

Oil provides more than half the government’s income.

Early election results were due late on Sunday or early Monday and both sides were optimistic although exit polls gave mixed results.

”They show us triumphant in the entire country,” said Chavez’s top campaign strategist Alberto Muller Rojas.

But others indicated that Chavez’s allies would lose some states.

If the opposition can grab the populous and prosperous states that pollsters say are still in play, it would keep the political momentum and improve its chances of stifling the ambitions of a man who came to power in early 1999 and wants to rule for decades.

The voters’ main concerns are the government’s failure to control crime and inflation, which helped the opposition defeat the December 2007 referendum proposing that Chavez be given more powers and allowed to run for re-election. He still plans to try to change the rules so he can run again in 2012.

”I voted for the opposition. They are the defenders of democracy and they are the ones who are going to win,” said Yulitza Manzano (20) a student in the western state of Zulia where posts for governors and mayors are hotly contested.

Chávez’s future
Chávez has frenetically campaigned at rallies of redshirted supporters across a nation of Amazon jungle, Andean peaks and Caribbean beaches that he allies with Cuba, Iran and Russia.

He has threatened to cut off funds, or even deploy tanks, in areas the opposition wins, and has also vowed to jail the opposition’s main leader, calling him a mafia boss.

Some opposition candidates were barred from taking part in the elections for alleged corruption.

Chávez, a former paratrooper, activated his party’s massive get-out-the-vote machinery on Sunday. The party did not function well last year but now has ”platoons” to turn out voters even in the most out-of-reach areas.

”These elections will be the first important test of the [government’s] political and social clout and remaining political capital” since the referendum loss, Goldman Sachs’ senior economist Alberto Ramos said.

The multi-party opposition also has improved, showing more unity than in the past by fielding single candidates.

Chávez faces stiff challenges from ex-supporters who he calls traitors. One such dissident could defeat the president’s brother in his home state, where his father is the governor.

With oil prices falling, the gloomy economic outlook for the major US oil supplier dismays many in a nation with one of the world’s worst murder rates and rates of inflation.

”I am not going to vote for either side,” engineer Carla Gonzalez (32) said. ”This country needs a firm hand to deal with crime and inflation. The ones in power haven’t been able to do anything, so who says the others could do either?” – Reuters

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