Novembre 22, 2008
CARACAS, Venezuela -- President Hugo Chavez faces a critical test of his grip on power against an energized opposition in state and municipal elections Sunday, a year after suffering his first defeat at the polls.
Chavez remains the country's most popular politician and enjoys overwhelming control of local offices. But he faces an opposition buoyed by last year's defeat of his attempt to abolish term limits and by grumbling over the crime, corruption and inflation that have blighted his socialist ambitions.
Chavez himself says these elections for governors and mayors could decide "the future of the revolution, the future of socialism and also the future of Hugo Chavez."
A setback could force Chavez to contend with hostile local-level opponents with revived national clout. Victory would help him lay the groundwork to extend his rule beyond 2013, when his six-year term ends.
Pre-election polls showed Chavez's candidates leading in a majority of races, while the opposition was ahead or in tight races in several of Venezuela's most populous states.
Chavez already has a congress filled with supporters and a Supreme Court that critics say is in his pocket as he tries to hold on to power in state houses and city halls.
Chavez has threatened to cut off national funds to states that end up in the hands of opponents. He also has warned he might need to send tanks to defend his government if an opponent wins hard-fought Carabobo state.
The candidates include Chavez's older brother Adan, who is in a tough, bellwether race to succeed their father as governor of Barinas, Chavez's home state. Chavez's ex-wife Marisabel Rodriguez is also on the ballot - on the opposition side.
Rodriguez, running for district mayor in her hometown, Barquisimeto, said her campaign may be local but it's also "against the danger posed to democracy by leaving a single person in power for a long time."
Chavez's allies swept the last state elections in 2004, winning all but two of 23 governorships and a majority of local offices. This time, candidates are competing for 22 governorships, 330 mayoral posts and other offices.
Chavez's popularity has rebounded since he suffered his only electoral defeat in 2007 in a referendum that would have allowed him to seek re-election indefinitely, as well as handpick local leaders and suspended civil liberties under extended states of emergency.
His candidates also have enjoyed campaign advantages, including plentiful state media coverage and a blitz of government spending on road paving and other public works projects. Chavez recently took a test ride on a new train in Yaracuy state, and his government debuted new cable cars that will lift passengers into Caracas' hillside slums.
Opposition mayoral candidate Carlos Ocariz, running in the poor Sucre district of Caracas, said in spite of the government's oil-funded largesse, "we've realized that elections are won in the street. They aren't won in news conferences or monopolizing the television screen."
Chavez, meanwhile, has attacked some opponents as "traitors" and "oligarchs." He ordered authorities to make sure opposition leader Manuel Rosales doesn't leave the country "because that criminal has to go to prison."
Pro-Chavez lawmakers opened a corruption investigation against Rosales during the campaign, saying he must explain how he allegedly obtained a collection of homes and ranches. Rosales, the governor of Zulia state, maintains he's innocent and accuses Chavez of going after him because he has a good shot of being elected mayor of Maracaibo, the country's second-largest city.
Chavez also accuses opponents of plotting violent protests if defeated. Both political camps vowed to closely observe the balloting, and some 140,000 troops have been assigned to keep security during the vote.
Associated Press writer Fabiola Sanchez contributed to this report