Venezuelan vote seen as key test for Chavez

Sunday's state and municipal elections could decide "the future of the revolution, the future of socialism and also the future of Hugo Chavez."

chavez 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
chavez 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
President Hugo Chavez knows just how important Sunday's state and municipal elections are to his own grip on power. The balloting - held one year after the president suffered his first defeat at the polls - could decide "the future of the revolution, the future of socialism and also the future of Hugo Chavez," he remarked recently. With a decade in office, Chavez still enjoys widespread popularity and has maintained control of most local posts. But last year's defeat of his attempt to abolish term limits has energized the opposition, which is riding a wave of complaints about rampant crime, corruption and inflation. The vote could either hand Chavez another setback or give him a boost as he lays 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. A mixed result is most likely. 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. But tensions are running high as voters head to the polls, with Chavez threatening to cut off national funds to states that end up in the hands of opponents. In 2004, Chavez's allies swept state elections with all but two of 23 governorships and a majority of local offices. This time the opposition aims to make gains as candidates compete for 22 governorships, 330 mayoral posts and other offices. Chavez's popularity has rebounded since last year's referendum defeat. His candidates also have enjoyed plentiful state news media coverage and a blitz of government spending on public works projects, including new cable cars that will lift passengers into Caracas' hillside slums. Among those candidates is his older brother, Adan, who is in a tough, bellwether race to succeed their father as governor of Chavez's home state, Barinas. Chavez's ex-wife, Marisabel Rodriguez, is also running - on the opposition side. She said her campaign for mayor in one district of her hometown, Barquisimeto, 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, meanwhile, has attacked some opponents as "traitors" and "oligarchs," and accuses opponents of plotting violent protests if defeated. Both political camps pledged to keep a close watch on the balloting, and 140,000 troops have been assigned to ensure security.