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Chavez fights for control in election

He tells backers to ‘attack’ using the ballot box

Supporters of President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela cheered him outside the polling station in Caracas where Chavez cast his vote during congressional elections. Supporters of President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela cheered him outside the polling station in Caracas where Chavez cast his vote during congressional elections. (Fernando Llano/ Associated Press)
By Ian James
Associated Press / September 27, 2010

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CARACAS — Opponents of President Hugo Chavez tried to break his longstanding monopoly on power yesterday in congressional elections that were also seen as a referendum on Chavez ahead of the next presidential election in 2012.

The firebrand leader urged his supporters to “attack’’ through the ballot box. Voters formed long lines at polling stations after being awakened before dawn by fireworks and recorded bugles blaring reveille from loudspeakers.

After casting his ballot, Chavez said turnout could be as high as 70 percent. “The people are speaking,’’ Chavez said, calling it proof the country has a healthy democracy.

Opposition parties were trying to end Chavez’s domination of the National Assembly for the first time in his nearly 12 years in the presidency.

Polls suggest Chavez remains the most popular politician in Venezuela, yet surveys have shown a decline in his popularity in the past two years as disenchantment has grown over problems including rampant violent crime, poorly administered public services, and inflation hovering at 30 percent.

The opposition, which boycotted the last legislative elections in 2005, stands to dramatically increase its representation beyond the 11 or so lawmakers who defected from Chavez’s camp in the current National Assembly. If Chavez’s socialist-oriented government fails to keep at least a two-thirds majority of the 165 seats, opponents would have more clout in trying to check his sweeping powers.

“Democracy is at stake,’’ said Teresa Bermudez, a 63-year-old Chavez opponent who stood in a line that ran down a block and around a corner. She said she sees the vote as a vital chance for the opposition to have a voice and achieve a more balanced legislature.

Chavez has fashioned himself as a revolutionary-turned-president carrying on the legacy of his mentor, Fidel Castro, with a nationalist vision and a deep-seated antagonism toward the US government. He has largely funded his government with Venezuela’s ample oil wealth, touting social programs targeted to his support base.

Chavez portrayed the vote as a choice between his “Bolivarian Revolution’’ and opposition politicians he accuses of serving the interests of the wealthy and his adversaries in the US government.

“We’re with this man because this man is the one who has really done things for this country,’’ said Carmen Elena Flores de Cordova, 58, a lawyer who dressed in signature Chavez red to vote. She pointed to government projects in the neighborhood as proof of progress: a new low-income apartment building and cable cars running up into a hillside slum.

Both political camps had witnesses at polling stations keeping an eye on the balloting and had invited foreign officials to do the same. Soldiers stood guard during the balloting, joined by civilians belonging to the Bolivarian Militia created by Chavez.

Chavez supporters wearing red T-shirts handed out fliers backing progovernment candidates to voters lined up at a polling station in Caracas’s Petare slum, despite rules barring such activities. Campaign trucks of Chavez’s socialist party also cruised past blaring Venezuelan folk music while a man using a loudspeaker called for people to “heed the call of the fatherland’’ and vote.

Some in line complained about such tactics, saying electoral officials were being too tolerant.

Opposition candidate Yvan Olivares complained he was initially blocked from voting by a band of raucous Chavez supporters on motorcycles who he said fired shots into the air. He said he was eventually able to cast his ballot after reporting the incident to elections officials. Tibisay Lucena, president of the National Electoral Council, called for those on motorcycles not to pass by voting centers.

At least 16 people were detained during the voting for violations such as tearing up their voting slips, and officials also halted groups riding motorcycles in several cities, General Henry Rangel Silva said.

Chavez’s party mounted an aggressive campaign to get supporters among Venezuela’s 17 million registered voters to the polls.

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