Ch�vez's Grip Tightens as Rivals Boycott Vote
By JUAN FORERO / NY Times
BOGOT�, Colombia, Dec. 4 - Venezuela's firebrand president, Hugo Ch�vez, took overwhelming control of the National Assembly on Sunday after five major opposition parties boycotted a national election for all 167 congressional seats.
Venezuela's leftist government increased its slight majority to take nearly all the congressional seats, the ruling party said, as up to 75 percent of eligible voters stayed away from the polls.
The outcome will permit the National Assembly to change the Constitution easily, as well as enact a range of major changes supported by Mr. Ch�vez, in areas ranging from Venezuela's health system to the criminal code.
The withdrawal of the parties also ensured that Venezuela's opposition has, for all practical purposes, ceased to exist in an organized form, paving the way for an easy victory by Mr. Ch�vez for another six-year term in the election for president late next year. Mr. Ch�vez, first elected in 1998, has already served longer than any leader of a major Latin American country, except for Fidel Castro of Cuba.
"Ch�vez would have annihilated them anyway," Alberto Garrido, a critic of the government and an author of several books about the president, said by phone from Caracas. "Now, they are starting from scratch. There are people in the opposition, but the opposition leadership is in tumult, without a strategy. Tomorrow, Monday, they will not know what to do."
With polls indicating that government candidates would crush them in the election, opposition leaders had for weeks threatened to pull out. They accused electoral authorities of using digital fingerprint machines at polling sites that would permit the government to determine how individuals had voted. Last Monday, in a decision brokered by the Organization of American States, the National Electoral Council announced that it would not use the machines.
But to the surprise of election monitors, opposition parties began announcing their withdrawal on Tuesday, with some anti-government leaders charging that an open vote could not be guaranteed because four of five members of the Electoral Council are viewed as partial to Mr. Ch�vez. The opposition decision appeared to be aimed at appealing to international support and discrediting Venezuela's government, which has strong approval ratings.
"The main objection was the digital fingerprint machine, which was removed, and now their line is we don' t trust the system, there must be another trick there," said Jos� Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director of Human Rights Watch, which has been harshly critical of Mr. Ch�vez.
"It's really hard to understand what exactly the political opposition leadership has in mind," he said. "But certainly it is not going to help them to present themselves as victims that deserve solidarity from the international community. With these kinds of tactics I don't think they'll gain any ground."
Of some 5,516 candidates running for office, about 556 dropped out - just over 10 percent but representing a vast majority of candidates from five major anti-Ch�vez parties. The boycott, coupled with heavy rains, prompted anti-government voters like �ngel Rodr�guez, 46, a chauffeur, to decide not to vote.
"We wanted an election with established rules of the game and to count the votes as they really are," he said.
But in neighborhoods like Petare, a Ch�vez stronghold, Chrislaine Sael, 32, a homemaker, called boycott leaders "people who've never had the dignity to say, 'I failed.' "
She added, with satisfaction, "This is the death of those parties."
Jens Gould contributed reporting from Caracas, Venezuela, for this article.