Monday, December 05, 2005

Pro-Chavez Candidates to Sweep Elections

Pro-Chavez Candidates to Sweep Elections

CARACAS, Venezuela, Dec. 5, 2005
(AP) Candidates aligned with President Hugo Chavez were widely expected to increase their legislative majority Sunday as Venezuelans voted for a new National Assembly in an election boycotted by several opposition parties.

Willian Lara, a leading lawmaker in Chavez's governing party, said internal tallies of the Fifth Republic Movement indicated pro-Chavez candidates could sweep all 167 of the assembly's seats.

Chavez earlier dismissed the boycott as a failed ploy to sabotage legitimate elections and avoid an embarrassing defeat, and officials later blamed a pipeline explosion on government opponents.

"The whole world knows a true democracy is in motion here in Venezuela," Chavez said after voting at a school where cheering supporters greeted him outside.

Chavez accused the United States, with which he often clashes, of being behind the boycott _ a charge Washington has denied.

The boycotting parties said they did not trust the voting system. Chavez said Venezuela has the most solid electoral system in South America, and that its integrity was secure despite "attempts to sabotage this process."

Turnout was estimated at 25 percent, National Electoral Council chief Jorge Rodriguez said.

Maria Corina Machado, who leads the U.S.-backed vote watchdog group Sumate, called the vote "illegitimate."

"We are going to have a single party parliament that doesn't represent ample sectors of society," Machado said in a statement.

Government officials say the U.S. has been meddling in the elections through Sumate, which receives money from the Washington-based National Endowment for Democracy, a private group funded by Congress.

Officials and election observers said the voting proceeded peacefully Sunday, while thousands of soldiers were deployed to keep order. The military said it stepped up security at oil installations to prevent any possible sabotage in the country, the world's No. 5 oil exporter.

Government officials reported several disturbances leading up to the vote, including blasts from small explosives that injured three people in Caracas on Friday and a pipeline explosion Saturday night in the western state of Zulia.

Interior Minister Jesse Chacon said C-4 explosives were used to blow up the pipeline and that officials believed the perpetrators were government opponents trying unsuccessfully to destabilize the country.

"We already know who is behind this situation, and we have made some detentions," Chacon said, without giving details.

Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez blamed the same opponents who unsuccessfully tried to oust Chavez in a two-month strike that ended in early 2003. Ramirez said a gas pipeline along the same route was also attacked, but that there was no damage.

Chavez said traditional parties that withdrew would be responsible for their own demise, and he cited electoral figures showing that only 556 of more than 5,500 candidates had quit the race.

"They are old parties that are already dead," Chavez said. He added that boycotting parties could emerge "not only delegitimized but also illegal." He did not elaborate.

His criticism was echoed by some voters.

"If they really are democrats, they should be participating," said Jesus Acosta, a 47-year-old accountant who waited in line to cast his ballot outside a school.

Candidates allied with Chavez hold 89 of the National Assembly's 165 seats and are aiming to increase their majority in an expanded 167-member congress. If they win a two-thirds majority, some pro-Chavez lawmakers have said they would consider changing the constitution to extend term limits for all offices, including the president.

The boycotting parties argue the National Electoral Council is pro-Chavez, there are irregularities with the voter registry and the touchscreen voting machines are vulnerable to confidentiality breaches.

Julio Borges, an opposition presidential candidate whose Justice First party was boycotting, said his party hoped to eventually achieve "total confidence" in the electoral system.

The Organization of American States, which had 60 observers monitoring the vote, said last week that "important advances" had been made to generate confidence in the elections. The European Union had an additional 160 observers on hand.

Chavez was elected in 1998 promising a revolution for the country's poor and is up for re-election next year. His enemies tried to overthrow him in a short-lived 2002 coup, backed the crippling oil strike that died out in early 2003 and organized a failed recall referendum last year.

Nuvia Castro, a nurse, said she was abstaining to make a statement against what she sees as Chavez's increasing grip on power.

"When the rules are clear," she said, "we'll decide to vote."

MMV The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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