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Venezuela opposition parties join vote boycott

Venezuela’s major opposition parties joined an election boycott Thursday, clearing the way for candidates aligned with President Hugo Chavez to expand their dominance of Congress in this weekend’s vote.
/ Source: The Associated Press

All of Venezuela’s major opposition parties joined an election boycott Thursday, clearing the way for candidates aligned with President Hugo Chavez to expand their dominance of Congress in this weekend’s vote.

Thousands of Chavez supporters massed in the streets to protest the opposition pullout, calling it a desperate measure by parties that have lost political support.

“They are pulling out because they feel they’ve lost,” said demonstrator Rafael Madero, a 45-year-old miner. “The decision is already made. They know they have no life left.”

One demonstrator shouting into a megaphone called opposition leaders “cowards” and “coup-plotters.”

Speakers mounted on a truck blared, “Yankee Go Home!,” referring to accusations by Venezuela that the United States has quietly supported the opposition boycott of Sunday’s vote. U.S. officials, often critical of the leftist Chavez, deny any involvement.

Gerardo Blyde, head of the opposition party Justice First, accused the electoral council of not guaranteeing a fair vote and said that was the reason his party joined the boycott.

Opposition parties, which have trailed in recent polls, accuse the electoral council of a pro-Chavez bias and express concerns a computerized voting system could compromise confidentiality.

“There’s no possibility of balance” in the elections, said Cesar Perez Vivas, leader of the Social Christian Party, which pulled out Thursday, joining parties including Democratic Action and Project Venezuela.

The electoral council insists it is impartial and says preparations have been made for a fair and transparent vote.

Only 78 candidates out of 4,056 have officially withdrawn, National Elections Council chief Jorge Rodriguez said, defending the council’s work in preparing the vote.

“There are people who are fed up with so much manipulation,” Rodriguez said. “The crisis of the political parties corresponds to the politicians.”

Chavez backers seek two-thirds
Pro-Chavez candidates are aiming to win a two-thirds majority in the 167-seat National Assembly, which would let them rewrite portions of the constitution and extend with term limits. Currently, pro-Chavez lawmakers hold 52 percent of legislative seats.

Chavez, a close ally of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, has urged candidates to “turn the National Assembly into a powerful instrument” for accelerating the pace of his socialist revolution. He has said opposition parties are pulling out simply because they would win few seats.

Analysts for months have been predicting a sweeping win for pro-Chavez candidates, mainly because polls show Chavez remains popular.

One poll conducted in October found 68 percent approved of Chavez’s performance and 46 percent would vote for him today if elections were held, said Luis Vicente Leon, director of the Venezuelan polling firm Datanalisis. No other potential candidate came close.

The poll consulted 1,300 people across Venezuela and had a margin of error of 2.7 percentage points, Leon said.

Abolish term limits?
Leaders of Chavez’s Fifth Republic Movement party have said they hope to reform the constitution to do away with term limits, a change that would allow Chavez to stay on as president beyond 2012 — the current limit if he is re-elected next December.

“There is a majority consensus within the Fifth Republic Movement to extend the number of terms for the president, governors, and mayors — all those officials who are popularly elected,” party leader Willian Lara told The Associated Press in an interview.

Chavez has urged his party to consider other measures, including one adding an eighth star to Venezuela’s yellow, blue and red flag. He noted that was once the hope of 19th-century independence hero Simon Bolivar — the inspiration for his “Bolivarian Revolution.”

“The eighth star on the national flag will be next year,” Chavez said in a recent speech.