Reporting from Caracas, Venezuela, and Bogota, — Venezuelans on Sunday night anxiously awaited results of the National Assembly elections, widely seen as a referendum on the performance of President Hugo Chavez.
The National Electoral Council did not immediately release the results of the races for 165 seats in the unicameral congress. Although there were scattered complaints about voters missing from registration lists and long lines, balloting was generally peaceful and without incident.
Opposition candidates agreed to unite under the Democratic Unity Table banner and were expected to pick up a significant percentage of the 165 seats. It's a contrast from the last assembly election in 2005 when Chavez opponents boycotted the vote, claiming a lack of transparency, and gave Chavez loyalists near 100% control.
Recent polls show increased disenchantment with Chavez. A wave of violence, particularly in Caracas, the capital, has made the country among the world's most crime-ridden.
Although poverty and illiteracy levels have dropped, the economy is a shambles with a 30% inflation rate, Latin America's highest, amid declining industrial and agricultural production.
Chavez voted in the morning at Manuel Palacio Fajardo School in the gritty "23rd of January" barrio, his preferred polling place. He invited Venezuelans to "come and vote and know your vote will be respected."
"Here democracy is complete. If you want to throw Chavez out, go ahead and gather signatures," Chavez told reporters, referring to a law under which leaders can face recall referendums if opponents gather enough signatures.
Javier Corrales, a political science professor at Amherst College, said he expected Chavez's allies in the PSUV, the Spanish initials for Venezuela's Only Socialist Party, to retain control even if opposition candidates garner a majority of ballots cast.
He said an electoral law passed last year that reset assembly district limits and apportioned added representational weight to those in which Chavez's support is strong, could make taking control of the assembly a long shot.
"The government is facing the highest degree of unpopularity since 2003," Corrales said. "But at the same time, it has acquired more mechanisms to protect its stranglehold on power. The government always finds a way to contain it, and this election is no exception."
Much of Venezuela was hit by heavy rain Sunday, possibly affecting turnout, which was expected to play a critical role in the outcome.
Among the candidates running to represent the capital was Stalin Gonzalez, a student leader who gained national prominence in 2007 for organizing protests against Chavez's refusal to extend the broadcast license of opposition TV station RCTV.
Analysts are focusing on the performance of candidates of the PPT, a splinter group that once supported Chavez, and which now presents itself to voters as a socialist alternative. Candidates include PPT general secretary Jose Albornoz and Central University of Venezuela professor Margarita Maya Lopez, once an ardent Chavez follower.
Mogollon and Kraul are special correspondents.