Sep 27, 2010 2 Comments ›› Pat Dollard
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) – Opponents of Venezuelan 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 during elections that stirred strong sentiment on both sides of Venezuela’s deep political divide. Venezuelans were waiting late Sunday for results to be announced.
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 violent 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 in downtown Caracas. 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 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 the opposition he says serves the interests of the wealthy and his adversaries in the U.S. government.