Chavez Claims Boost from 'Landslide' Victory ; Less Than 25 Percent of Eligible Voters Showed Up to Vote in Sunday's Legislative Election, Raising Questions of Legitimacy

Article excerpt

Many voting stations across Venezuela were eerily quiet during Sunday's congressional elections as allies of President Hugo Chavez gained almost complete control over the country's national assembly in a landslide victory.

Mr. Chavez's Fifth Republic Movement (MVR) says progovernment parties have won all 167 seats in the assembly, with MVR winning 114, far surpassing the two-thirds majority needed to fast-track any legislation. Critics worry that Chavez may use his strengthened position to do away with presidential term limits.

But five opposition parties boycotted the vote, claiming that the nation's electoral authority was biased toward Chavez's allies. And fewer than 25 percent of registered voters participated in the elections, leading some critics and analysts to say there is a crisis of legitimacy.

Carlos Albrizzio, director of one of several voting centers in the opposition-dominated Caracas neighborhood of Altamira, called the elections "a failure," saying as polls closed that only 5 percent of his center's registered voters had participated.

"These people don't trust the system," he said. "They don't want to support it with their vote."

Caracas-based pollster Alfredo Keller says the low turnout raises questions of Chavez's standing. "It isn't clear that Chavez has the power over the people that he says he has," he comments.

The high abstention rate and expected dominance of progovernment parties in the national assembly could also hurt Venezuela's legitimacy in the international community.

"With this vote, it will be easier to say that Chavez is pulling all the strings in Venezuela," says Miles Frechette, international consultant and former political counselor for the US Embassy in Caracas.

"It's becoming a one-party state and that's problematic," says Prof. Eduardo Gamarra, director of Latin American studies at Florida International University. But Mr. Gamarra also said that low voter turnout did not make an election illegitimate, pointing out that midterm elections in the United States often see high abstention rates as well.

But the government and its supporters claim the opposition parties boycotted the vote because the they knew they would lose.

"They came to the fight and left when they saw that the enemy was bigger," said Chavez supporter and housewife Chrislaine Sael after voting for progovernment deputies.

"The legitimacy of this electoral process is not in question," says Ricardo Gutierrez, progovernment deputy and vice president of the national assembly, noting that congressional elections often see low participation. …