Venezuelans vote in local election test for Chavez

Other News Materials 23 November 2008 10:59 (UTC +04:00)

Venezuelans vote Sunday in state elections where President Hugo Chavez aims to consolidate his grip on the OPEC nation to re-energize his drive towards socialism a year after he suffered a referendum defeat, Reuters reported.

Still popular among the majority poor for spending oil wealth on schools, clinics and subsidized food, Chavez needs his allies to score a decisive win to build a platform to push reforms that would allow him to seek re-election in 2012.

The anti-U.S. leader of Latin America's radical left won 20 of 22 states in the last local elections four years ago. He is set to gain a majority again but the strength of his win hinges on several states where he appears to have only a slim lead.

If the opposition can grab the populous and prosperous states that pollsters say are still in play, it would keep the political momentum and be emboldened to stifle the ambitions of a man who came to power in 1999 and wants to rule for decades.

The government's failure to control crime and inflation -- which helped the opposition defeat the referendum proposing that Chavez be allowed to run for re-election -- are voters' main concerns.

"These elections will be the first important test of the regime's political and social clout and remaining political capital" since the referendum loss, Goldman Sachs' senior economist Alberto Ramos said.

Declaring his future depends on the outcome, Chavez has frenetically campaigned at rallies of redshirted supporters across a nation of Amazon jungle, Andean peaks and Caribbean beaches that he has allied with Cuba, Iran and Russia.

He has threatened to cut off funds, or even deploy tanks, in areas the opposition wins. He has vowed to jail the opposition's main leader, calling him a mafia boss.

Sunday, Chavez activated the massive get-out-the-vote machinery of his United Socialist Party of Venezuela. The former paratrooper's single party was too new to function well last year but is now stocked with "platoons" tasked with turning out voters even in the most out-of-reach shantytowns.

The multiparty opposition has also improved, showing more unity than in the past by fielding single candidates.

Chavez faces stiff challenges from ex-supporters whom he calls traitors. Such dissidents could beat a talk-show star Chavez picked for one race or defeat the president's brother in his home state where his father is the governor.

Whatever the result, Chavez faces tough times ahead. The government relies on oil for more than 50 percent of its income but the value of crude has plummeted about $100 since July.

The gloomy outlook for the major oil supplier to the United States, which has one of the world's highest murder rates and the continent's worst inflation, has many voters dismayed.

"I am not going to vote for either side," engineer Carla Gonzalez, 32, said. "This country needs a firm hand to deal with crime and inflation. The ones in power haven't been able to do anything, so who says the others could do either?"