CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelans voted on Sunday in state elections that test President Hugo Chavez’s grip after a decade in power as he seeks to renew his drive toward socialism in the OPEC nation despite falling oil prices.
Although popular with the poor, Chavez lost a referendum vote on a major constitutional overhaul last year and needs his allies to score clear victories so he can advance measures allowing him to stay in office after his term ends in 2012.
The anti-U.S. leader of Latin America’s radical left won 20 of 22 states in the last local elections four years ago. He is set to gain a majority again but the strength of his win hinges on several states where he appears to have only a slim lead.
Fireworks, blaring music and pre-dawn bugle calls awakened residents, who formed long lines at polls that stayed open after nightfall to deal with what appeared to be a high turnout.
Chavez, 54, voted in a famously left-wing district of Caracas and said he will drive forward his program of drastic reforms to institutions and high social spending even though oil has fallen to $50 a barrel from a peak of $147 in July.
“Even with oil prices at $50 or even less, the Venezuelan economy will keep moving forward, nothing will stop the advance of Venezuela and the construction of Bolivarian socialism,” he said. Oil provides more than half the government’s income.
If the opposition can grab the populous and prosperous states that pollsters say are still in play, it would keep the political momentum and be emboldened to stifle the ambitions of a man who came to power in 1999 and wants to rule for decades.
The voters’ main concerns are the government’s failure to control crime and inflation, which helped the opposition defeat the December 2007 referendum proposing that Chavez be given more powers and allowed to run for re-election. He still plans to try to change the rules so he can run again in 2012.
“I voted for the opposition, they are the defenders of democracy and they are the ones who are going to win,” said Yulitza Manzano, 20, a student in the western state of Zulia where posts for governors and mayors are hotly contested.
Chavez has frenetically campaigned at rallies of red-shirted supporters across a nation of Amazon jungle, Andean peaks and Caribbean beaches that he has allied with Cuba, Iran and Russia.
He has threatened to cut off funds, or even deploy tanks, in areas the opposition wins. He also has vowed to jail the opposition’s main leader, calling him a mafia boss.
On Sunday, the former paratrooper activated the massive get-out-the-vote machinery of his new Socialist Party. The party did not function well last year but now has “platoons” to turn out voters even in the most out-of-reach shantytowns.
“These elections will be the first important test of the (government’s) political and social clout and remaining political capital” since the referendum loss, Goldman Sachs’ senior economist Alberto Ramos said.
The multi-party opposition also has improved, showing more unity than in the past by fielding single candidates.
Chavez faces stiff challenges from ex-supporters who he calls traitors. One such dissident could defeat the president’s brother in his home state, where his father is the governor.
With crude prices dropping, the gloomy economic outlook for the major oil supplier to the United States dismays many in a nation with one of the world’s highest murder rates and the continent’s worst inflation.
“I am not going to vote for either side,” engineer Carla Gonzalez, 32, said. “This country needs a firm hand to deal with crime and inflation. The ones in power haven’t been able to do anything, so who says the others could do either?”
Additional reporting by Manuel Hernandez in Maracaibo and Alejandro Lifschitz in Caracas; Writing by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Bill Trott