Venezuelan voters gave President Hugo Chavez a strong show of support today by electing his allies to all but eight seats in a new 131-member assembly that has the power not only to rewrite the constitution but also to reinvent the country's political system.
Today's ballot--in which the controversial new president's wife, Marisabel, won the second-highest number of votes--could mark the fall of the traditional parties that had dominated Venezuelan politics since democracy was restored here in 1958. Political analysts say that control of the new assembly will give Chavez--a left-leaning firebrand elected six months ago on an anti-establishment platform--the means to carry out his threat to dissolve Congress and perhaps the Supreme Court.
With the vote count nearly complete, Chavez's Patriotic Alliance had won at least 123 seats in the new body, which will be the "supreme power" here for the next six months as it drafts a new constitution for Venezuela, the largest exporter of oil to the United States.
As thousands of joyous supporters chanted his name in front of the Presidential Palace tonight, Chavez heralded the victory as the beginning of new, more equitable Venezuela, declaring: "Today, Venezuela is free once again."
In previous statements, Chavez called the assembly the core of a new revolution that will "finally restore dignity and a better life to the poor" while rooting out the "corrupt political parties from Venezuelan democracy." But opponents of Chavez fear he will try to manipulate the assembly to solidify his authoritarian-style rule.
During his brief tenure in office, Chavez, 44, a former paratrooper who launched two unsuccessful coup attempts in 1992, has been accused by democracy advocates of "militarizing" Venezuelan society--primarily by using army officers in typically civilian roles, such as on public works projects. He also disobeyed Congress by reinstating officers who took part in his coup attempts and by promoting others without congressional approval, as required by law.
One of the first issues the new assembly will debate is a proposed constitutional provision that would allow Chavez to seek a second consecutive term in office, now forbidden under the current 38-year-old constitution.
"I think this is a ruse for Chavez to find a way to take total power," said Anibal Romero, a political scientist. "I see us going backward, to the old days of military rule." Voters are measuring today's ballot "in enormous proportions," Romero said. "Chavez has become their messiah, and they believe he and this assembly are going to solve all their problems."
In a country with a poverty rate higher than 80 percent, many voters said they see Chavez and the new assembly as their only hope to oust politicians they believe to be mired in corruption. And although voter turnout was below 50 percent, those who did vote hold strong convictions.
"I'm sick of 40 years of corrupt democracy," said Servando Beerreo, a grocer in line to cast his vote here in the capital. "Look, they say Chavez is an authoritarian. Okay. Well, we need a strong hand now to fight corruption. He's the only one we have with the guts to throw all those politicians out."
The assembly--approved by a national referendum in April--appears destined to become a body that will redefine not only politics, but society itself in Venezuela. Candidates had used the election campaign as a platform to speak out on crime control, gay rights and other issues.
In an interview Friday, Chavez said he plans to strengthen democracy by "suggesting" that the assembly create a new, fourth branch of government that would act as an ombudsman and fiscal overseer of the other three. When asked if he sees a need to dissolve Congress, Chavez said: "I don't know; it depends on them. It depends on the obstacles they provide."