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Venezuela election: Hugo Chávez's largest challenge yet

A united opposition in Sunday's Venezuela election could gain seats in the legislature and limit President Hugo Chavez's power as citizens grow weary of poverty and crime.

By Steven BodzinCorrespondent / September 26, 2010

People line up outside a polling station during congressional elections in Caracas, Venezuela, Sunday.

Fernando Llano/AP


Barquisimeto, Venezuela

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is facing his biggest electoral challenge in years as opponents seek to gain seats in the legislature amid recession, and Venezuelans confront a crime wave that has touched most families.

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"I don't know who I'm voting for," Erika Alvarez says while on a lunch break from her job as a vehicle finance assistant. "I support the president, but we need new deputies who do their job."

Citizens who have traditionally voted with the president are giving opposition leaders hope that they can win at least a third of the legislature's seats during Sunday's parliamentary election. While Mr. Chávez's approval rating hovers at 50 percent after almost 12 years in office, critics aim to capitalize on voter dissatisfaction and unify around opposition candidates – a shift in strategy from their 2005 election boycott, which merely handed power to Chávez allies. The half-dozen major opposition parties will likely use any wins to start jockeying to pick a challenger to take on Chávez in 2012.

Crime and the economy come up time and again in conversations with both supporters and opponents of the self-proclaimed revolutionary socialist. For Ms. Alvarez, the crime wave came close to home last year, when her neighbors were murdered. The neighborhood erected a wall and security gates, but she no longer goes out to enjoy the tropical nights after 8 p.m. "One of the main things the assembly has to look into is a plan to reduce violence," she adds. "Many of my friends have been robbed, and there's no justice."

Socialist domination

Venezuela's legislature is dominated by the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, or PSUV, which controls 138 of the legislature's 163 seats. Its allies have another eight seats. For years, the legislature has rubber-stamped presidential proposals to nationalize industries, increase presidential control over social spending and local government, and expand alliances with Cuba and other leftist governments.

Chávez's side has dominated all but one nationwide election since 1998, including three presidential races. His only loss was in 2007, when he proposed a constitutional overhaul that would have centralized power. The setback was short-lived: His favored candidates took most of the country's mayoral and gubernatorial seats in 2008, and last year he won a referendum to end presidential term limits.