Latin America & Caribbean

Opposition hopes for comeback in Venezuela elections

Wall painting of Hugo Chavez in Caracas
Image caption Mr Chavez has urged voters to "demolish" the opposition

Venezuelans have voted for a new parliament, with opposition parties poised to return to the National Assembly after a poll boycott in 2005.

They are set to take back seats from the governing United Socialist Party (PSUV) of President Hugo Chavez.

But Mr Chavez is hoping to hold on to a two-thirds majority in the assembly.

Opinion polls suggested that the result could be tight in what is being seen as a test of Mr Chavez's popularity before presidential elections in 2012.

Large queues formed outside polling stations on Sunday as Venezuelans flocked to vote in an election that both government and opposition say is crucial.

But hours after polls closed, opposition parties were complaining that no results had been released, despite Venezuela's automated voting system.

Electoral officials were still meeting in private in the early hours of Monday morning, as thousands of Venezuelans remained glued to their televisions and radios in anticipation of the results.

A spokesman for the opposition umbrella group Table for Democratic Unity (MUD) demanded the results be released, saying the delay suggested the opposition had done well.

"We demand the National Election Council give the results which we all know already," said Ramon Guillermo Aveledo.

Earlier, Sandra Oblitas of Venezuela's National Electoral Council said voting had gone smoothly.

"The electoral process went ahead with happiness, with tranquillity, with calm, with peace and with a great flow of voters," she said.

'Massive attack'

President Chavez has admitted that his party is likely to lose seats to the MUD.

He appealed to Venezuela's 17 million voters to prevent a derailment of his "revolution", and urged his supporters to vote in a "massive attack" that would "demolish" the opposition.

Predicting a turnout as high as 70%, Mr Chavez said the election was proof that Venezuela had a healthy democracy.

"Everyone knows their vote will be respected," he said.

The opposition is hoping to end Mr Chavez's domination of parliament for the first time since he became president nearly 12 years ago.

"We need the majority of votes to secure a true democracy in our country," said MUD spokesman Felix Aroyo.

Five years ago opposition groups boycotted the legislative elections, saying they did not think the poll would be free and fair.

That decision helped left-wing parties loyal to Mr Chavez to get almost all of the assembly's 165 seats, making it easy for him to push through socialist reforms.

This time the opposition agreed to take part, despite concerns about changes to the electoral system which it says give an unfair advantage to the governing socialists.

Rather than concentrating on their dislike for the president, opposition parties kept their campaigns narrowly focused on issues like crime and the rising cost of living.

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