Allies of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez were poised take overwhelming control of the legislature after some of the country's strongest opposition parties called for a boycott of Sunday's congressional election, claiming it was unfairly controlled by the government and therefore illegitimate.
Though final results had not yet been announced late Sunday, allies of Chavez said they easily captured a two-thirds majority, which would be needed to change the constitution and possibly permit Chavez to run for a third consecutive six-year term in 2012 without the need for a referendum. Chavez has already announced his plans to run for reelection next year.
Chavez downplayed the boycott, which was formally observed by about 10 percent of the more than 5,500 candidates vying for the 167 National Assembly seats. Among those who pulled out of the race last week were members of the most powerful opposition parties. Chavez suggested that they did so only after it became clear that they would be roundly defeated at the ballot box.
Chavez allies currently hold 86 seats in the legislature. The chief of Chavez's party, the Fifth Republic Movement, told reporters Sunday that preliminary figures indicated that his party had won 114 seats and that the remainder would be split among allied parties.
"Death is natural and necessary, and I think the time for the death of the old parties has come," said Chavez, after voting at a high school in western Caracas. "Maybe deep in their souls and their subconsciousnesses they accept this, and they wanted to accelerate their demise."
Chavez declined to comment Sunday afternoon on the possibility of constitutional changes, saying that it was too early to speculate on the outcome of the vote.
The election proceeded without incident in Caracas, but a small blast damaged an oil pipeline in the west of the country that delivers hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil daily to a large refinery. On Friday, three small bombs exploded in Caracas near a government office and a military base, injuring three people, including a police officer.
"I don't want to blame all of the opposition, but there are absolutely irrational sectors in the opposition camp who believe they can disturb the process with those acts," Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel told reporters Saturday after the attacks in the capital.
The election boycott was called by opponents who complained that the country's electoral council is comprised of Chavez supporters. They charged that touch screen voting machines and the fingerprint identification system used at the polls would lead to breeches in voter confidentially, even after the government agreed to not use the fingerprinting system. The European Union sent 160 observers to monitor the elections; another 50 were sent by the Organization of American States, which declared last week that "important advances" had been instituted to encourage clean elections.
Chavez, a former soldier, was elected president in 1998 and has emerged as President Bush's most vocal critic in Latin America. Opponents tried to overthrow him in a brief coup in April 2002, which Chavez says was supported by the U.S. government. As the world's fifth-largest oil supplier, Chavez' government has used windfall profits from higher energy prices to fund social programs for the poor that have helped boost his approval rating to 68 percent, according to an October survey by the polling firm, Datanalisis.
Chavez says Venezuela's main opposition groups are surreptitiously backed by the U.S. government, which he said also supported Sunday's boycott. He has also accused the Bush administration of trying to assassinate him, and he has repeatedly said that his government's intelligence agencies have uncovered U.S. plans to invade Venezuela, charges that U.S. officials deny.
Opposition parties, which accuse Chavez of instituting authoritarian measures to control the courts and media, encouraged voters to bypass polling sites and instead attend church services to pray for peace. Preliminary totals indicated that about 25 percent of eligible voters cast ballots Sunday.
In the wealthier, eastern sectors of the city where the opposition enjoys high levels of support, voter turnout appeared low on the rainy Sunday. By mid-afternoon, officials at one polling site said that only about 60 of more than 1,000 registered voters had cast ballots.
"I think it will send a message to the international community that the president does not have the support of all the people and that his plans to create a communist society don't have broad support," said Luis Mora, 54, a lawyer from Caracas who opted not to vote. "We couldn't go to the polls and support this flawed institution."
But in the city's poor neighborhoods, where Chavez enjoys broad support, turnout was considerably higher. Lines of voters remained throughout the day at the high school where Chavez later cast his vote, many of them dressed in red, a color that has become a symbol of support for his government. Voters there said they believe the election was fair and dismissed the boycott as a failed stunt to avoid embarrassing losses.
"They know they're defeated," said Juan Duarte, 37, who stood outside the school to watch Chavez depart in his motorcade. "They just want to create an impression in the international community that we do not have transparent elections, but we do."