Chavez’s hope to check his sweeping powers with wins in Venezuelan congressional elections

By Ian James, AP
Sunday, September 26, 2010

Chavez’s foes hope voters put checks on his power

CARACAS, Venezuela — Opponents of President Hugo Chavez tried to break his long-standing monopoly on power Sunday in congressional elections, while the firebrand leader rallied his supporters urging them 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. The vote is also seen as a referendum on Chavez himself ahead of the next presidential election in 2012.

Polls suggest Chavez remains the most popular politician in Venezuela, yet surveys also have shown a decline in his popularity in the past two years as disenchantment has grown over problems including rampant crime, poorly administered public services and inflation now 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 mentor Fidel Castro, with a nationalist vision and a deep-seated antagonism toward the U.S. 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 U.S. 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, a 58-year-old lawyer who dressed in signature Chavez red for 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 pro-government candidates to voters lined up at a polling station in Caracas’ 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.

Chavez’s party mounted an aggressive campaign to get supporters among Venezuela’s 17 million registered voters to the polls. In Caracas, a party worker shouted into a loudspeaker early Sunday urging people to “defend the revolution.” In online posts on Twitter, Chavez called for supporters to turn out and urged them to “sustain the MASSIVE ATTACK!!”

Chavez has warned that his adversaries would try to obstruct his government’s efforts if given the chance — and some opposition supporters said that is exactly what they hope for.

“We want a total change,” said Dieter Jaaniorg, a 31-year-old auto parts seller who was the first of dozens in line at a Caracas polling station, sitting in a folding chair. He said he is fed up with crime, a bad economy and an authoritarian government.

His younger brother, Cristian, said they both see it as a last chance for the opposition to show it can stand up to Chavez. “If we don’t win today, it’s straight to communism,” he said.

Opposition candidates called the elections a crucial opportunity to defend democratic principles and freedom, saying the National Assembly has been simply taking orders from Chavez for five years.

Opposition candidate Julio Borges said there are no longer checks and balances, and that the vote could help restore some controls on Chavez’s actions. “Everything is under his control and he decides everything. That isn’t democracy,” Borges said.

Some government supporters argue that the opposition — a coalition made up of a range of political factions — has not presented a clear, viable alternative to “Chavismo.”

“What they want is to get into the assembly to sabotage all of this,” said Jose Aguilar, a 47-year-old business manager who has long backed Chavez. “None of them has presented a plan for the country.”

If Chavez’s opponents muster a two-thirds majority, they would be able to prevent the president’s allies from continuing to rewrite laws unopposed and could demand checks on public spending. They could also prevent Chavez’s allies from unilaterally being able to appoint officials including Supreme Court justices and members of the electoral council.

The president’s face was ubiquitous on campaign posters for the candidates of his socialist party. Chavez pitched his allies like a salesman, offering Venezuelans new, low-interest credit cards and discounted appliances from washing machines to TV sets.

The government’s “Good Life Card,” which has yet to be widely distributed, is to be good for purchases at state-run stores and for travel. Chavez has touted another program offering cheap appliances imported from China as evidence of his government’s commitment to making life affordable even while prices at private stores climb swiftly.

Associated Press writers Fabiola Sanchez and Jorge Rueda contributed to this report.

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