Many voting stations across Venezuela were eerily quiet during Sunday's congressional elections as allies of President Hugo Chávez gained almost complete control over the country's national assembly in a landslide victory.
Mr. Chávez'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 Chávez 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 Chávez'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 Chávez'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 Myles Frechette, international consultant and former political counselor for the US Embassy in Caracas.[Editor's note: The original version misspelled Myles Frechette's name.]
"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 Chávez 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. Almost half of voters didn't cast a ballot the last time congressional elections were held separately from presidential elections in 1998.
Opposition parties threatened a boycott if the National Electoral Council (CNE) did not remove digital fingerprint machines from polling stations, charging that they violated voter secrecy. The CNE promised last week to eliminate those machines in the voting process, but the opposition parties pulled out of the race anyway.
Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel condemned the boycott in a press conference on Saturday. Yet he did say that Venezuela could not do without an opposition.
"There are two fundamental elements of a democracy: the government and the opposition," Mr. Rangel said. "One depends on the other."
With one of those elements now missing, however, Chávez's party will now be able to pass new laws at will.
Opposition deputies and some analysts predict that government deputies will call for a national referendum that could allow Chávez to run for a third consecutive term. The president has said he wants to remain in power through at least 2021.
Rangel and Foreign Minister Ali Rodriguez deny that the government plans to propose the term extension, which would require constitutional reform.
Gutierrez said that the legislative body will instead tackle proposed police, health care, and food-security laws.
Gerardo Blyde, who boycotted the election with his opposition party Justice First, said his party opposed the new police law because it would create a large centralized force. Mr. Blyde also predicted that the national assembly would pass a new education law, which he criticized for giving the state the power to decide what type of education children receive.
Milos Alcalay, a former ambassador to the UN from Venezuela, called the election boycott "a great triumph for the opposition" because the parties united to reject the government.
But the opposition will have its own challenges to confront, as the boycotting parties may be forced to collect signatures to regain official recognition.
Opposition parties are expected to seek more popular support and changes in the electoral system leading up to presidential elections next year.
Chavez, who accused the United States of orchestrating the opposition withdrawal, charged that "the hour of death has come" for the boycotting parties.