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Venezuelans Vote in Test for Chavez Allies

August 7, 2005

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) _ Voters across Venezuela cast ballots to select thousands of local officials Sunday in elections that could predict how well President Hugo Chavez’s political allies will fare in key congressional elections in December.

Chavez said the elections marked ``one more step in the strengthening of the electoral system″ to prevent irregularities. Casting his ballot in a poor neighborhood of Caracas, he said ``there is security, there is calm throughout the country.″

The elections were to decide thousands of city council and parish board posts, plus two provincial mayors and one governor, in the sparsely populated state of Amazonas.

More than 38,700 candidates were contesting the elections. In recent votes, opposition leaders called for boycotts, saying the country’s electoral council is stacked in Chavez’s favor. But this time only small opposition parties urged a boycott, while the major opposition parties called for participation to demonstrate unity.

Some voters complained of administrative problems in the capital of Caracas, where some poll workers failed to show up on time.

``There was a great lack of organization,″ said 71-year-old Teresa Mendoza, waiting in a line that had formed due to a lack of poll workers.

Other polling stations had workers in place but few voters.

Some 14.3 million people were registered to vote, and soldiers were called up across the country to maintain security. Turnout is traditionally low in Venezuela’s local elections _ it was at 23 percent in the last municipal vote in 2000.

Chavez, a former army officer who is up for re-election in 2006, has drawn loyal supporters and bitter enemies through his close ties to Cuba’s Fidel Castro and his sharp criticism of the U.S. government and Venezuela’s wealthy ``oligarchy.″

Recent polls suggest Chavez has about 70-percent popularity, but it was unclear whether that would translate into a resounding victory for pro-Chavez politicians.

Pro-Chavez lawmakers currently control 53 percent of the National Assembly and are trying to increase their majority in December elections.

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