Venezuelan parties withdraw from election

WALKOUT: Three opposition parties pulled out of Sunday's congressional elections, with allies of President Hugo Chavez accusing the US of playing a role in the matter

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , BOGOTA, COLOMBIA

Thu, Dec 01, 2005 - Page 7

Accusing Venezuelan electoral officials of favoring that country's populist government, three opposition parties announced on Tuesday that they would pull out of congressional elections scheduled for Sunday.

The withdrawal of the three parties, two of which ruled Venezuela for four decades until President Hugo Chavez won office in 1998, could give the leftist governing party overwhelming control of the 167-member National Assembly.

If Chavez's slim majority in the Assembly increases to a two-thirds majority, the government will be poised to obtain a range of constitutional reforms, like an extension of the president's term.

"Under these conditions, we cannot participate in the electoral process," Henry Ramos, the secretary general of Democratic Action, said on Tuesday.

Democratic Action and officials of two other parties, the Social Christian Party, or Copei, and the smaller Project Venezuela, accused the electoral authorities of failing to correct errors in the voter registry and in electronic voting equipment, opening the door to fraud and discrimination against opponents of the government.

"Across this country, there is a profound lack of confidence in the electoral arbiter because it does not say the truth," said Cesar Perez Vivas, secretary general of Copei, which had asked that the elections be delayed.

Chavez, though, called the opposition pullout "political sabotage" and said it would not discredit his government. Other officials said the vote would take place as planned and harshly accused the opposition of withdrawing because it faced a dire outcome at the voting booth.

"Very well, let them go to hell," Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel said. "They know they are defeated because they see the polls, too."

Rangel and allies of the president also accused the US of playing a role in the withdrawal of the parties, noting that an election-monitoring group that receives financing from Washington, Sumate, called for Venezuelans to gather in churches on Sunday and raise their voices in anti-government prayer.

The three parties that are withdrawing hold 36 seats in the assembly. Three other important opposition parties will take part in the election, but the absence of Democratic Action and Copei is expected to be a blessing for Chavez's Fifth Republic Movement and its allies, which control nearly 90 seats.

"It's a disaster, a disaster for the opposition," Luis Vicente Leon, a political analysts who heads the Datanalisis polling company, said by phone from Caracas.

"Only a small part of the opposition will participate, and that's a disaster," he said.

Leon said the withdrawal of the parties would give Chavez and his allies more than 80 percent of the National Assembly, 10 percent more than they would have won had the opposition parties not withdrawn.