- Associated Press - Sunday, December 16, 2012

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelans are choosing governors and state lawmakers on Sunday in elections that have become a key test of whether President Hugo Chavez’s movement can endure if the socialist leader leaves the political stage.

Voters in some areas of Caracas were awakened before dawn by fireworks and reveille blaring from speakers mounted on trucks. But turnout in the initial hours of voting appeared to be much lower than the country’s October presidential vote, when long lines snaked out of polling stations and Mr. Chavez won another six-year term.

The vote is the first time in Mr. Chavez’s nearly 14-year-old presidency that he has been unable to actively campaign. He hasn’t spoken publicly since undergoing cancer surgery on Tuesday in Cuba.

Governorships in all of the country’s 23 states are being decided in the elections. Mr. Chavez’s party currently controls all but eight of the states, and if it maintains its dominance, the vote could help the president’s allies deepen his socialist policies, including a drive to fortify grass-roots citizen councils that are directly funded by the central government.

For the opposition, the elections are apt to determine the fate of its leadership. The most pivotal race involves opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who gave Mr. Chavez his stiffest challenge yet in the October presidential election, and is now running for re-election in Miranda state against Elias Jaua, Mr. Chavez’s former vice president.

The elections also could be an important dry run for new presidential elections if cancer cuts short Mr. Chavez’s presidency.

Mr. Chavez is due to be sworn in for another term on Jan. 10. But if his condition forces him to step down, the Venezuelan Constitution requires that new presidential elections be called promptly and held within 30 days.

Mr. Chavez said before undergoing the surgery that if he’s unable to continue, Vice President Nicolas Maduro should take his place and run for president.

Alida Delgado, a lawyer, was waiting to vote outside a school in an affluent neighborhood of Miranda state. She said she favored Mr. Capriles because Mr. Chavez’s government has left the country immersed in rampant crime and economic troubles. She said one of her sons moved away to Canada several years ago in search of work as a business manager.

As for Mr. Chavez, Mr. Delgado said, “I hope he recovers, but I think there’s going to be change.”

“God willing, I think that soon we’re going to have new elections,” Mr. Delgado said, adding: “May the opposition win.”

Mr. Chavez’s son-in-law, Jorge Arreaza, who is also the government’s science and technology minister, said in a Saturday phone call from Havana broadcast on television that the president had called for supporters to turn out to vote.

Mr. Arreaza said Mr. Chavez is in full control of his mental faculties and has been talking with his children and getting daily visits from Fidel Castro while recovering slowly from the surgery, which was his fourth cancer-related operation since June 2011.

Mr. Chavez’s political allies framed the election as a referendum on his legacy, urging people to dedicate the vote to Mr. Chavez. The government put up banners on lampposts with the motto “Now more than ever, with Chavez.”

“I’m sure that the Chavista candidates are going to win a majority of the states because this country continues to be Chavista,” said Ricardo Mendez, a bus driver who voted for Mr. Jaua. “We’re going to give Chavez a gift: an overwhelming victory.”

Baker Luis Chacon, who also voted for Mr. Jaua, said he still thinks Mr. Chavez can beat cancer, and he isn’t particularly concerned about what would happen if he doesn’t.

“If he gets worse, new elections will come to choose another,” Mr. Chacon said after voting in the working-class slum of Petare.

If the Chavistas make gains or even hold steady, the executive branch could strengthen its hold on the grass roots, as communal councils decide such questions as who gets a new roof, or which streets need repairs, distributing the funds directly. Mr. Chavez’s opponents have objected to the government’s campaign to develop such state-funded “communes” because they bypass the traditional authority of state and local elected officials.

Mr. Chacon said that while he supports Mr. Chavez, the local communal council has no presence where he lives and hasn’t managed to fix broken lights and stairs that wind through the hillside slum.

The closeness of the vote to Christmas and apparent apathy among many voters suggested a low turnout. In the last presidential election, 81 percent of registered voters turned out, but gubernatorial elections tend to draw fewer people.

Some said a low turnout could be a hazard both for Mr. Chavez’s camp and the opposition.

Political analyst Carlos Raul Hernandez said he thinks Mr. Chavez’s illness could keep some voters away because he’s developed “a style of messianic leadership” in which he stands out far above his political allies.

“There are a lot of people who are only interested in Chavez, not at all the governors,” Mr. Hernandez said.

Associated Press writers Christopher Toothaker and Vivian Sequera contributed to this report.

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