December 5, 2005

Chavez allies claim victory in thin Venezuela vote

By Andrei Khalip

CARACAS, Venezuela (Reuters) - Lawma

kers loyal to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said on
Monday they had won a sweeping victory in a National Assembly
election as the government defended the poll's legitimacy
despite an opposition boycott and low voter turnout.

Chavez allies said the win would boost their power to amend
the constitution -- like scrapping limits on presidents running
for more than two terms -- and introduce reforms that opponents
fear will increase the left-winger's power in the world's No. 5
oil exporting nation.

Electoral authorities were expected to present the final
tally later on Monday, but Chavez's supporters said it had
secured 114 out of 167 seats in the new legislature.

Only one-fourth of eligible voters took part in the vote,
the National Electoral Council said.

That low turnout could play into the hands of Washington
and the opposition, who say Chavez is pushing Venezuela to
Cuban-style communism by trampling on democratic rights.

Main opposition parties had boycotted the vote, reneging on
an earlier promise to participate after reaching a deal with
international election monitors that had appeared to quell
fears of voting machines being manipulated.

"Venezuela yesterday buried the National Electoral Council
and the electoral system," opposition-leaning TalCual newspaper
editor Teodoro Petkoff wrote. "We will now insist... on the
need to rebuild completely the electoral system."

"The government has a problem it cannot ignore -- a
single-colored parliament elected amid a gigantic abstention,"
Petkoff said, calling for a dialogue with the opposition.

But supporters of the democratically-elected Chavez -- who
enjoys popularity ratings of around 70 percent -- were

"The election has given us the opportunity to... convert
the National Assembly in a social power, in a power for the
people," said National Assembly chief and Chavez' ally Nicolas
Maduro. He said he expected lawmakers to present key
constitutional proposals in 2007.

Chavez's critics say the former soldier has grown
increasingly authoritarian by exercising political control over
the courts and electoral council. But supporters praise him for
ending years of neglect by traditional parties whose influence
waned during the Chavez administration.

The Venezuelan leader, who was first elected in 1998, has
benefited from high world prices and has spent billions in
windfall oil revenues on projects for the poor as part of his
self-styled socialist revolution.


Chavez's opponents may now use the low turnout, which
compares to 56 percent in the 2000 parliamentary election, to
attack the parliament's legitimacy. But they must compete with
Chavez's high popularity ratings as Venezuela prepares for
presidential elections in December 2006.

"We are going to work to annul this election," COPEI
opposition party chief Cesar Perez told reporters, saying his
party would seek a Supreme Court action against the poll.

Analysts said the government would be disappointed with the
low turnout and would continue to blame the opposition's
boycott that Chavez said had been orchestrated by Washington.

The government has also blamed Saturday night's explosion
at a major oil pipeline on sabotage by "radical groups" and
Interior Minister Jesse Chacon suggested that "those who
withdraw from the election" were behind it.

Foreign Minister Ali Rodriguez told reporters the new
Congress was "as legitimate as anywhere in the world."

"The governability of a country does not depend so much on
the size of the opposition but on the people's support," he
said. He expected turnout to be much higher in next year's
presidential elections.

(Additional reporting by Magdalena Morales)