Image: Venezuela campaign
Fernando Llano  /  AP
People, one holding up a doll depicting Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez, demonstrate during a campaign rally of him, not seen, in Caracas, Venezuela, Wednesday.
updated 9/27/2010 1:21:27 AM ET 2010-09-27T05:21:27

Opponents of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez tried to break his long-standing monopoly on power in congressional elections Sunday, and demanded electoral authorities release the results after an hours-long wait that put the country on edge.

More than six hours after the official end of voting, electoral officials were meeting in private early Monday as Venezuelans anxiously awaited for results to be announced.

"We demand (the electoral council) give the country the results it already knows," said Ramon Guillermo Aveledo, leader of a coalition of opposition parties.

Voters stood in long lines at polling stations during Sunday's elections, which stirred strong sentiment on both sides of Venezuela's deep political divide.

Chavez supporters drove through downtown Caracas late Sunday waving party flags and honking horns. Chavez urged them to be patient in an online posting on Twitter, expressing confidence his candidates were headed for victory.

Chavez had said after casting his ballot that he expected results from the automated vote system to be available before midnight. Electoral officials had said the results would be ready about two hours after the closing of polls.

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"The people are speaking," Chavez said earlier when he voted, predicting turnout of about 70 percent and 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.

Story: Venezuela: Parliament election tests Chavez rule

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.

Image: Hugo Chavez casts ballot Sunday
Leonardo Ramirez  /  AP
Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez casts his ballot Sunday during legislative elections in Caracas, Venezuela

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 opposition politicians he accuses of serving the interests of the wealthy and his adversaries in the U.S. government.

"We're with this man because this man is the one who has really done things for this country," said Carmen Elena Flores de Cordova, a 58-year-old lawyer who dressed in signature Chavez red to vote. She pointed to government projects in the neighborhood as proof of progress: a new low-income apartment building and cable cars running up into a hillside slum.

Both political camps had witnesses at polling stations. Soldiers stood guard during the balloting, joined by civilians belonging to the Bolivarian Militia created by Chavez.

Chavez supporters wearing red T-shirts handed out fliers backing pro-government candidates to voters lined up at a polling station in Caracas' Petare slum, despite rules barring such activities. Campaign trucks of Chavez's socialist party also cruised past blaring Venezuelan folk music while a man using a loudspeaker called for people to "heed the call of the fatherland" and vote.

Some in line complained about such tactics, saying electoral officials were being too tolerant.

Opposition candidate Yvan Olivares complained he was initially blocked from voting by a band of raucous Chavez supporters on motorcycles who he said fired shots into the air. He said he was eventually able to cast his ballot after reporting the incident to elections officials. Tibisay Lucena, president of the National Electoral Council, called for those on motorcycles not to pass by voting centers.

At least 16 people were detained during the voting for violations such as tearing up their voting slips, and officials also halted groups riding motorcycles in several cities, Gen. Henry Rangel Silva said.

However, electoral officials said no major problems were reported during the voting.

Chavez's party mounted an aggressive campaign to get supporters among Venezuela's 17 million registered voters to the polls. In Caracas, voters were awakened before dawn by fireworks and recorded bugles blaring reveille from speakers. A party worker shouted into a loudspeaker early Sunday urging people to "defend the revolution."

In online posts on Twitter, Chavez called for supporters to turn out and urged them to "sustain the MASSIVE ATTACK!!"

Chavez has warned 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.

"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 Chavez. "If we don't win today, it's straight to communism," he said.

Opposition candidates called the elections a crucial opportunity to defend democratic principles and freedom, saying the National Assembly has been simply taking orders from Chavez for five years.

Opposition candidate Julio Borges said there are no longer checks and balances, and that the vote could help restore some controls on Chavez's actions. "Everything is under his control and he decides everything. That isn't democracy," Borges said.

Some government supporters argued that the opposition — a coalition made up of a range of political factions — has not presented a clear, viable alternative to "Chavismo."

  1. Most popular

"What they want is to get into the assembly to sabotage all of this," said Jose Aguilar, a 47-year-old business manager who has long backed Chavez. "None of them has presented a plan for the country."

If Chavez's opponents managed to prevent the president from obtaining a two-thirds majority, they would be able to prevent Chavez's allies from continuing to rewrite laws unopposed and could demand checks on public spending. They could also prevent pro-Chavez lawmakers from unilaterally being able to appoint officials including Supreme Court justices and members of the electoral council.

The president's face was ubiquitous on campaign posters for the candidates of his socialist party. 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. Chavez has touted another program offering cheap appliances imported from China as evidence of his government's commitment to making life affordable even while prices at private stores climb swiftly.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Explainer: Venezuela: Nation's vote to test Chavez

  • Fernando Llano  /  AP
    People cheer during a recent rally by President Hugo Chavez's allies in Caracas, Venezuela. Election campaigning comes at a crucial time as recession, crime and inflation have pushed the socialist leader's popularity to a seven-year low.

    Much is at stake for Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who first won power in 1998 but has seen his popularity plunge due to increased crime, a recession and the highest inflation rate in the Americas.

    Chavez's opposition is certain to make gains in parliamentary elections on Sunday. While it won't be not enough to wrest legislative control from Chavez's party, it's the latest sign of the South American nation's shifting power struggle.

    Below is a look at the election campaigning for Venezuela's 165-seat National Assembly.

  • At stake

  • Woman walks past referendum graffiti in Caracas
    Jose Miguel Gomez  /  Reuters
    Graffiti sprayed across a wall has a large "yes" painted over a previous slogan saying "Chavez won't go," in Caracas.

    For observers, Venezuela's parliament vote comes at critical time as the nation faces a power struggle.

    On the one side, Chavez's popularity is hovering in the 40-50 percent range, according to most polls and analysts. That's well below his highs of previous years, but probably enough to ensure his ruling Socialist Party keeps a majority in parliament.

    For campaign rivals, the vote is guaranteed to give them at least some seats after they boycotted in 2005. Having united into an umbrella movement, the opposition's most realistic goal is to slash Chavez's majority to below two-thirds in the 165-seat assembly.

    For example, without a two-thirds majority, Chavez would need to court opposition support for laws or to make appointments.

    In the past, Chavez has used "fast-track" powers to bypass parliament and pass controversial laws such as those allowing him to nationalize parts of the oil sector or increase the number of Supreme Court magistrates.

    To get those powers again, Chavez would need support of three-fifths, or 99, of the lawmakers.

    Critics charge that Chavez would be tempted to dissolve the assembly altogether to get his way.

  • Chavez

    Image: Hugo Chavez
    Juan Barreto  /  AFP - Getty Images
    Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

    The energetic Chavez — who has replaced Cuba's Fidel Castro as Latin America's biggest annoyance for Washington — has criss-crossed Venezuela to drum up support for his candidates.

    A big victory for Chavez, 56, would probably mean an acceleration of his socialist overhaul of South America's top oil exporter.

    Some key facts about Chavez:

    * Born to a poor family in the Venezuelan plains on July 28, 1954.

    * Aspired to be a painter and then a professional baseball player.

    * Spent much of his later military career conspiring with other leftist officers to overthrow the country's traditional political order. A former lieutenant colonel, Chavez led a 1992 coup that failed but made him famous and propelled him toward the presidency.

    * Won 1998 presidential vote and took office the next year. Opposition politicians and dissident troops led a coup against him in 2002, but he was swept back to power in less than two days. Chavez accuses Washington of backing the plot.

    * Relished broad backing among Venezuela's poor majority with massive social spending to expand health and education programs, financed by income from oil exports.

    * Cultivated support by openly attacking the United States, which he denounces as a decadent empire.

    * Inspired by his friend and mentor, Fidel Castro, Chavez has taken Venezuela down a radical path, nationalizing large swathes of the economy and running the government with a personalized — many would say autocratic — style.

  • Rivals

  • Maria Corina Machado
    Ariana Cubillos  /  AP
    Independent opposition legislative candidate Maria Corina Machado waves to people in Caracas.

    Chavez faces a newly-united opposition umbrella group called Democratic Unity.

    Democratic Unity candidates believe voter discontent with Chavez's authoritarian style, one of the world's worst murder rates outside a war zone, a second year of recession and untamed inflation give them a real shot at winning a majority.

    "The people have fallen out of love with Chavez. We're coming back!" said Berta Morales, a veteran activist with Democratic Action, one of the parties in the opposition group.

    The opposition may run close to Chavez on the overall popular vote, giving it a symbolic boost ahead of 2012, although analysts believe his allies will keep control of the legislature.

  • Issues

    Image: Caracas slum
    Ariana Cubillos  /  AP
    Residents stand in their doorway of their home in La Pedrera, one of the poorest slums in Caracas.

    Among the main election issues:

    * CHAVEZ: Though his support is waning, Chavez remains loved among the poor for his populist style and social policies. Rivals regard him as a dictator.

    * CRIME: In one of the world's most violent countries outside a war zone, up to 16,000 people have been murdered in 2009, according to leaked police numbers and a non-governmental watchdog. Government officials were furious over a New York Times article implying Venezuela is now more dangerous than Iraq, saying groups conspired to blacken Chavez's image before the vote.

    * ECONOMY: Venezuela has been in recession since early 2009, inflation is among the world's highest, and businesses are squeezed of foreign currency. So from wealthy businessmen to Venezuelans queuing for buses, it's common to hear grumbling.

    * SERVICES: Chavez's popularity has taken a buffeting from water and power shortages since the end of last year, with many asking how such problems could happen in a resource-rich nation like Venezuela. The government said a drought and past economic growth had put pressure on the systems. Either way, the problems have eased in recent months. The rains arrived, water levels in the main Guri reservoir — where most of Venezuela's electricity is generated — are back up to high levels.

    * COLOMBIA: Chavez's recent diplomatic row with Colombia — he cut relations, then restored them when President Juan Manuel Santos took power — made headlines internationally. Chavez views Colombia as a U.S. pawn, while Bogota sees him as a tacit supporter of Colombia's left-wing rebels. But the issue is unlikely to sway many voters on September 26.

  • Programs

    Ariana Cubillos  /  AP
    Fidela Hernandez, 46, uses a washing machine after filling it with water bucket by bucket in La Pedrera. Research shows the slums have been growing, driven by migration of people from depressed rural areas to Caracas.

    Geared to improve the lives of poverty-stricken Venezuelans, Chavez launched new programs ahead of legislative elections. Among them:

    * The "Good Life" credit card allows residents a chance to buy food, household electronic goods at state-run stores.

    * The "Popular Tourism" program helps low-income residents see the country's natural wonders through subsidized tourism.

    * A plan for distributing cars that run on natural gas and carry a guarantee of free maintenance.

    * A program to sell Chinese household electronic goods like washing machines and televisions at a discount.

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