- Associated Press - Sunday, September 26, 2010

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — President Hugo Chavez was seeking to hold on to his dominant control of Venezuela’s legislature on Sunday in elections that put his popularity to a critical test.

Voters lined up at polling stations before dawn after being awakened by recorded bugles blaring reveille from loudspeakers across Caracas. Mr. Chavez called for his supporters to turn out in large numbers, saying on Twitter, “Attack!”

The opposition has mounted a determined challenge to try to break Mr. Chavez’s monopoly of power in the National Assembly for the first time in his nearly 12 years in the presidency.

“What’s at stake is for there to be more democracy,” said Stalin Gonzalez, a 29-year-old opposition candidate and former student protest leader. “The country needs a more balanced assembly.”

Mr. Chavez’s allies have had near-total control since opposition parties boycotted the last legislative elections in 2005, citing concerns about possible irregularities. If Mr. Chavez’s opponents manage to deny him at least a two-thirds majority this time, they would have more clout in trying to check his sweeping powers.

The vote also is seen as a referendum on Mr. Chavez himself ahead of the next presidential election in 2012. Polls suggest he 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.

“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 Mr. Chavez. “If we don’t win today, it’s straight to communism,” he said.

Mr. Chavez portrayed the vote as a choice between his socialist-oriented “Bolivarian Revolution” and opposition stooges whom he accuses of serving the interests of the wealthy and his adversaries in the U.S. government.

“There are many benefits now with the president. I like the revolution,” said Norma Torres, a 59-year-old massage therapist.

Mr. Chavez warned during the campaign 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.

During campaigning, the president’s face was ubiquitous on campaign posters for the candidates of his socialist party. Mr. 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. Mr. Chavez has touted another program offering cheap appliances imported from China as evidence of his government’s commitment to making life affordable while prices at private stores have been climbing swiftly.

Opposition candidates called the elections a crucial opportunity to defend democratic principles and freedoms, saying the National Assembly has been simply taking orders from Mr. Chavez for five years and that they fear he intends to lead Venezuela toward Marxism.

Opposition candidate Julio Borges said tha tthere are no longer checks and balances and that the vote could help restore some controls on Mr. Chavez’s actions. “Everything is under his control and he decides everything. That isn’t democracy,” Mr. 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 long has backed Mr. Chavez. “None of them has presented a plan for the country.”

If Mr. Chavez’s allies manage to retain a two-thirds majority, it would give them the power to keep rewriting laws unopposed and to appoint officials including Supreme Court justices and members of the electoral council.

Opposition candidates complained ahead of the vote that Mr. Chavez’s allies benefited from public funds and ample time on state television. The opposition also has criticized an election law passed by Mr. Chavez’s allies that redrew some legislative districts and gave greater weight to votes in rural areas, where the president remains more popular.

More than 17 million Venezuelans were registered in the vote to select all 165 lawmakers in the unicameral National Assembly.

Associated Press writer Jorge Rueda contributed to this report.

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