Mery Mogollon / Chris Kraul
Los Angeles Times
November 24, 2008
Reporting from Bogota, Colombia, and Caracas, Venezuela -- Turnout was heavy Sunday in Venezuelan state and local elections, which were seen as a referendum on President Hugo Chavez's decade in office and could be a decisive factor in whether he attempts to abolish term limits and extend his powers.
Late Sunday, the National Electoral Council reported that Chavez's gubernatorial candidates were leading in 17 of 22 states, two of which, Tachira and Carabobo, were too close to call. Chavez's party appeared set to lose the Caracas mayoralty, however.
A turnout of 65% set a modern record for state and local elections, the commission said. None of the results were final.
Chavez's socialist government has been facing inflation, high crime and falling oil prices, but he remains highly popular in this mineral-rich and polarized country. His gubernatorial and mayoral candidates were expected to win solid, if reduced, majorities in the nation's statehouses and city halls.
Nearly 17 million Venezuelans were eligible to vote in the balloting for 327 mayoralties and 22 governorships, and polls stayed open past the 4 p.m. deadline. Currently, Chavez's allies hold 20 governorships and nearly three-quarters of the city halls.
A year ago the fiery leader narrowly lost a nationwide referendum that would have abolished presidential term limits and extended his political and budgetary power over regional leaders. During recent campaigning, he hinted that he might try again.
Venezuela's inflation rate is approaching 40%, the highest in the hemisphere. Food scarcities caused partly by declining farm output have led to a black market and long lines at the government-run Mercal retail chain, where subsidized household staples are sold.
Violent crime is on many voters' minds; newspaper readers in Caracas, the capital, awoke Saturday to headlines about 17 killings overnight. Falling oil revenues, on which Chavez's "21st century socialism" depends, could threaten his programs if they continue to drop.
But Chavez is credited with having redistributed oil wealth to the poor in the form of education, healthcare, business ownership and groceries, earning a solid base of support in the urban barrios and the countryside.
"I'm voting because I'm a student and I think it's important to get involved and not just sit at home," said Cristina Rosas, 28, as she left a Caracas polling place. "I love my country, and it needs leaders who help us advance."
Chavez has also benefited from disorganized and frequently hapless opposition, which over the last decade often has been unable to offer candidates that were viable alternatives.
Critics contend that Chavez helped clear the field this year when election officials disqualified about 400 mostly opposition candidates from running for office. They included Leopoldo Lopez, who analysts say could have won the Caracas mayoralty and is considered presidential timber.
Chavez faces criticism even among supporters. His arms buildup and foreign policy, which involves oil giveaways and the embrace of U.S. rivals, including Iran and Russia, don't sit well with many Venezuelans, who feel a closer bond with Uncle Sam.
The voting concludes an exceptionally bitter campaign in which Chavez threatened opposition candidates with military intervention if losers don't abide by the results.
Chavez also announced a corruption investigation into Zulia governor and Maracaibo mayoral candidate Manuel Rosales. Chavez defeated Rosales in the 2006 presidential election.
After voting in Caracas, Chavez said he was "prepared to recognize any result."
"Well, the 'tyrant Chavez' lost a referendum last year by a nose, fewer than 10,000 votes, and he was the first one to go out and say we lost," Chavez said at an impromptu news conference. "He congratulated the winners and advised them to manage their victory well. I learned to manage my defeats years ago."
Mogollon is a special correspondent. Kraul is a Times staff writer.