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Turnout Massive In Venezuela's Vote on Chavez

Polling Hours Extended for Recall

By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 16, 2004; Page A12

CARACAS, Venezuela, Aug. 16 -- Voters turned out in overwhelming numbers Sunday to decide whether to recall President Hugo Chavez, a populist whose rule has bitterly divided this major oil-producing country and strained relations with the United States.

The heavy turnout appeared to reflect a widespread desire by Venezuelans to end a three-year standoff between Chavez and his opponents that has periodically exploded in violence, including a short-lived coup in 2002.

Hundreds of Venezuelans line up to cast their ballots on whether to keep the country's populist president, Hugo Chavez, in power.

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Voters waited patiently at polling stations for as long as 10 hours, many huddling under umbrellas to ward off a blazing sun. The delay stemmed from the use of time-consuming fingerprint scanners aimed at deterring fraud, and from the massive electoral turnout, the highest in 30 years. With lines stretching for a mile or more, voting hours were extended beyond the initial 4 p.m. until midnight.

Opposition activists were jubilant about the vote and set off fireworks early Monday. Although election rules barred them from publicizing exit polls, they appeared on television Sunday night, predicting a win.

"All the tendencies indicate we're on the point of winning a democratic victory," said Felipe Mujica, a spokesman for the opposition coalition.

But a Chavez election official, Samuel Moncada, predicted that those opposed to the recall would prevail.

"We're winning," he said late Sunday. Hundreds of Chavez supporters gathered at the presidential palace, blowing whistles and chanting slogans in a victory celebration.

The referendum was the culmination of years of efforts by the opposition to oust Chavez, a charismatic former army officer who swept into office in 1998 pledging to replace the country's scandal-tainted two-party system with a government catering to the poor.

Chavez is a hero to many of the country's destitute. But critics, who include many in the middle and upper classes, accuse him of ruling in an inept, authoritarian style and fomenting class hatred.

The significance of the vote goes well beyond Venezuela. This South American country is the fourth-largest supplier of oil to the United States and has been a traditional U.S. ally. But the Bush administration has been irked by Chavez's close ties to Cuban President Fidel Castro and his support for left-wing movements in the hemisphere. Chavez, in turn, has been deeply suspicious of the Bush administration since it quickly recognized the coup in April 2002 that briefly deposed him.

Chavez, 50, voted in western Caracas on Sunday and promised to accept the results of the referendum.

"All those who were saying the dictator Chavez wouldn't agree to a vote. . . . Well, here's the proof," the president said.

Chavez has vowed that if he lost the recall, he would be a candidate in elections that would be triggered within 30 days.

Chavez supporters as well as opponents warned before the referendum that they would not accept the results if there was fraud, raising fears of violence or a disruption of oil exports. The slow pace of voting, caused mainly by mechanical delays in the scanning of fingerprints outside the voting booths, fanned concerns of irregularities, both among voters and opposition activists.

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