Venezuelans turned out in large numbers on Sunday to vote in closely watched legislative elections as the opposition coalition sought a parliamentary check on leftist President Hugo Chavez ahead of 2012 presidential elections.
"The people are speaking," Mr. Chavez said after casting his ballot, predicting turnout of up to 70 percent and calling the vote proof of the country's vibrant democracy. Official results were not expected until Monday, though some unofficial estimates were likely to trickle in overnight.
Mr. Chavez is not on the ballot, but the race has turned into a referendum on his nearly 12 years in power, during which he has slowly imposed a socialist revolution domestically and promoted an anti-American agenda abroad.
His approval rating recently fell below 50 percent as Venezuela's oil-centered economy sputtered. The country's gross domestic product shrank 3.3 percent last year while the annual inflation rate soared above 30 percent.
Five years after boycotting the last round of legislative elections, opposition political forces — now unified within the Coalition for Democratic Unity — are hammering the government with charges of widespread corruption and what they describe as an ongoing assault on democracy.
"We Venezuelans are choosing between two conceptions of society that are totally different," opposition National Assembly candidate Maria Corina Machado said in an interview Sunday.
"On one hand, you have a government that has put in place a centralized, militarized government taking over control of all public powers and limiting and reducing civic, economic and political rights for citizens. On the other hand, we have the possibility to build a true, inclusive democratic society in which institutions represent all citizens of all sectors and aren't used for the benefit of a few in power."
Ms. Machado, a leading organizer of the 2004 presidential-recall referendum — which many analysts say was rigged in Mr. Chavez's favor — said she was confident that "a wide majority of Venezuelan citizens reject the idea of having an authoritarian regime in Venezuela, want to live in a democracy and realize that this government has been a failure."
Ms. Machado and others said the vote count is important for symbolic reasons, but most observers are focused on whether the opposition will gain the one-third of National Assembly seats needed to prevent Mr. Chavez from passing special "enabling laws."
"Just like in the U.S., where a supermajority in the Senate is necessary for either party to fully implement their agenda, having two-thirds of the National Assembly would help President Chavez implement the political, economic and social changes the Venezuelan people need to continue improving their living conditions," Venezuela's ambassador to the United States, Bernardo Alvarez, told The Washington Times.
"We're happy that the opposition did not make the same tactical error they did in 2005 by simply refusing to participate in that year's legislative elections," he added. "If they use these elections to build towards 2012, so much the better. President Chavez remains popular throughout Venezuela, and we're sure he'd be happy to put his vision for Venezuela up against that of the opposition."
Amherst College professor Javier Corrales, co-author of a forthcoming book on Mr. Chavez's consolidation of power, said, "The Chavista camp has been working very diligently on preventing abstentionism in its ranks and organizing party members to go out into towns, find people and bring them to the polls."
Mr. Corrales said the government, through its control of the National Electoral Council, can monitor who is voting on Election Day.
"This was openly discussed at a [Socialist] Party congress that I saw broadcast on [Venezuelan] national television," he said.
Mr. Corrales noted that during a televised discussion between President Chavez and one of his party's campaign organizers, Mr. Chavez said, "We have to make sure we have enough commandos so that, on the day of the election, we are going to say, 'What's happening with Person X? How come she hasn't voted? Where is she? Let's go find her. Is she in some other town? Well, let's see if we can go to that other town and find her and encourage her to come and vote.'"
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