- elections - Hugo Chavez - Venezuela
Voters await results of first competitive election in years
Millions of Venezuelans await the results of what was the first truly competitive legislative election since Hugo Chavez came to power as an opposition coalition mounted a credible challenge to the president and his socialist party.
AFP - Tension gripped Venezuela early Monday as the opposition called for the release of official results more than six hours after voting closed in a key electoral test for leftist President Hugo Chavez.
Chavez's party sought a majority of the 165 seats in the elections set to shake up the political scene he has dominated for nearly 12 years in the oil-rich nation.
Venezuelans came out in force Sunday, as the opposition fought for a strong return to the National Assembly, under the umbrella Table for Democratic Unity (MUD), fighting for its first seats since a 2005 election boycott.
Shortly after midnight, the coalition indicated it had reason to celebrate but released no results, respecting Venezuelan law that they must come from official electoral authorities.
"We're waiting to follow the law. They now know what happened, we know what happened," said a frustrated Ramon Guillermo Aveledo, spokesman for the Democratic Unity Table (MUD).
Pre-vote polls suggested a tight race, perhaps giving a slight lead to the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), likely to benefit from recent changes to voting districts.
Under the new system, they could win two thirds of seats with around half of the vote, which could lead both sides to claim victories.
As supporters gathered at all party headquarters, and with no exit polls allowed, enthusiastic commentary exploded on social networks like Twitter.
Populist Chavez said it had been "another great day" on his widely-watched Twitter account, and his party optimistically called for crowds to gather at the presidential palace to celebrate.
"Change is coming!" said a comment on an opposition party account.
Tibisay Lucena, president of the electoral council, earlier said the vote had taken place "in an atmosphere of calm and civic-mindedness" without major incidents.
Chavez, who was welcomed at a hillside slum polling station by cheering, red-clad crowds, claimed turnout would reach 70 percent, after dominating the end of campaigning two years before presidential polls.
Chavez wants his party to keep a strong grip on the legislature to aid his "socialist revolution," after nearly 12 years in power marked by nationalizations, social projects and a centralizing of power.
The opposition sought to tap into public concern over one of the world's highest murder rates and economic woes, including record inflation.
"I'm worried they'll cancel social programs," said 49-year-old Osiris Marcan, after voting in a traditional Chavez stronghold in western Caracas.
Voters in the middle class opposition area of Chacao said Venezuela needed more political diversity, and a change from Chavez.
"I voted for my country," said shopkeeper Alba Correa, 51. "We want a counterweight. That's our big hope."
In more than a decade of rule, Chavez has nationalized public utilities, key industries and media and launched health clinics and subsidized food programs for the poor. He has also increased pressure on opposition groups and dissidents.
The ex-paratrooper has lost only one of 13 votes organized by his government.
More than 17 million people were eligible to take part in the latest vote.
Chavez, 56, is strongly influenced by Communist Cuba and often slams US policy, though the United States remains the main buyer of Venezuelan oil.