Venezuelans vote for governors and mayors yesterday in elections seen as a popularity test for leftist President Hugo Chavez, one year after the anti-US leader lost a referendum on extending his authority. Polls showed Chavez’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) would likely hold most states and cities, but could lose some posts as voters express concern over escalating crime, corruption and inefficiency.
Chavez, in power for almost 10 years, has crossed the country campaigning for his party’s candidates, ensuring that the polls will also test support for him and his socialist revolution.
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.
“My destiny is at stake ... Whether Chavez keeps governing Venezuela will depend on what happens on Nov. 23,” the president said recently.
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.
Diverse opposition groups have meanwhile agreed to join together to increase chances for victory and run single candidates in 20 of 22 gubernatorial races and in more than 200 of 328 mayoral races.
The opposition controls two states — northwestern Zulia and northeastern Nueva Esparta — and another four are in the hands of Chavez dissidents.
Surveys showed the opposition could win between five and seven governorships in their bid to gain back some lost power.
Observers say that opposition gains in symbolic areas of the oil-rich OPEC country such as Caracas or big states his allies have controlled for years would do the most damage.
Famous for his fiery language, Chavez has threatened to imprison opponents, or even send tanks onto the streets if his party loses in the populous northwestern state of Carabobo.
Local and regional police will be off duty to cede polling day control to some 140,000 soldiers.
Some 300 candidates, mainly from the opposition, have been prevented from running in the elections.
Chavez, 54, led a failed military coup in 1992 and was briefly overthrown for two days in April 2002.
But until last year’s narrow referendum loss, the outspoken anti-liberal — popular among the country’s majority poor who he has helped with social programs — had always emerged from polls with convincing victories. Many say that, despite last year’s referendum defeat, the firebrand leader is still seeking to change the constitution in a bid to stay in office beyond 2013 when his second six-year term will end.
About 17 million Venezuelans are eligible to vote.