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Left Coalition Leads Venezuela Vote

November 9, 1998

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) _ A left-wing coalition led by a former coup leader has become the strongest force in Venezuela’s new Congress, in a major setback to the two parties that have ruled for the 40 years since democracy was restored.

With 67 percent of Sunday’s vote counted, Hugo Chavez’s Patriotic Pole coalition won 34 percent of the congressional seats. The center-left Democratic Action Party won about 22 percent, and the conservative Copei Party won 11 percent.

The pro-business Project Venezuela emerged with about 12 percent of the vote.

The 44-year-old Chavez, an independent supported by millions of peasants and shantytown dwellers, is favored to win the Dec. 6 presidential election.

In 1992, he staged an unsuccessful military revolt against the government and became a hero to many for denouncing corruption and speaking out on behalf of the poor. He spent two years in prison and was released in 1994 by President Rafael Caldera.

Investors reacted negatively to the strong electoral showing by his coalition, with the Caracas stock exchange dropping 2.4 percent by early afternoon.

Many investors and businessmen fear Chavez will reverse free-market policies that President Rafael Caldera put into effect during the last two years.

Initial results indicated the Patriotic Pole would pick up seven of Venezuela’s 23 governorships. With about 60 percent of the vote counted in the gubernatorial races, Democratic Action and Copei were set to win the governorships in most of the rest of the country.

But in a surprise showing, Chavez’s father, Hugo de los Reyes Chavez, was ahead in the race for governor in the western state of Barinas.

The Patriotic Pole’s candidate for governor in oil-rich Zulia state, incumbent Francisco Arias Cardenas, also was ahead. He was one of the army officers who helped lead Chavez’s 1992 coup attempt against then-President Carlos Andres Perez.

Perez, who has spent the past several months under house arrest on charges of illegal enrichment, won a senate seat Sunday. This will give him parliamentary immunity and his freedom.

The Patriotic Pole didn’t exist until early this year. But it has tapped into profound public anger over corruption, which many Venezuelans say has caused the country to squander its oil reserves _ the world’s largest outside the Middle East.

While the rich view Chavez as a dangerous military rebel, ``he’s a savior″ for the poor, said factory worker Fran Serrano, who spoke Sunday while waiting to vote in a Caracas slum.

Serrano said the $132 a month he earns in a furniture factory is only enough to feed his family twice a day. The slum where they live is so dangerous they’re afraid to go out after dark, and their home has running water only once a week at best.

Many people blame Copei and Democratic Action for Venezuela’s declining living standards.

``Democracy here is a lie. It’s a dictatorship disguised as a democracy,″ said television worker Edenis Guilarte, 27, who voted for the Patriotic Pole.

Chavez’s prescription to cure Venezuela’s ills includes dissolving Congress, calling a constituent assembly and rooting out corruption.

His message helped produce a large turnout for Sunday’s vote. About 55 percent of voters cast ballots, a high percentage for congressional and gubernatorial elections.

Venezuelans voted for 23 governors, 48 senators, 189 members of the lower house of congress and 391 state assembly members.

President Caldera’s party, Convergence, which broke away from Copei five years ago, was not a major player in the election. Venezuela has been a democracy since 1958, when a civilian government replaced a dictatorship.

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