Opposition skips Venezuela vote

Boycott gives Chavez overwhelming control of assembly


BOGOTA, Colombia -- Venezuela's firebrand president, Hugo Chavez, took overwhelming control of the National Assembly yesterday after five major opposition parties boycotted a national election for all 167 congressional seats.

Venezuela's leftist government increased its slight majority to take nearly all the congressional seats, the ruling party said, as up to 75 percent of eligible voters stayed away from the polls. The outcome will permit the National Assembly to change the Constitution easily, as well as enact major changes supported by Chavez in areas ranging from Venezuela's health system to the criminal code.

The withdrawal of the parties also ensured that Venezuela's opposition has, for all practical purposes, ceased to exist in an organized form, paving the way for an easy victory by Chavez for another six-year term in presidential elections late next year. Chavez, first elected in 1998, has served longer than any leader of a major Latin American country, except for Fidel Castro of Cuba.

"Chavez would have annihilated them anyway," Alberto Garrido, a critic of the government and an author of several books about the president, said by phone from Caracas. "Now, they are starting from scratch. There are people in the opposition, but the opposition leadership is in tumult, without a strategy."

With polls indicating that government candidates would crush them in the election, opposition leaders had for weeks threatened to pull out. They accused electoral authorities of using digital fingerprint machines at polling sites that would permit the government to determine how individuals had voted. Last Monday, in a decision brokered by the Organization of American States, the National Electoral Council announced that it would not use the machines.

But to the surprise of election monitors, opposition parties began announcing their withdrawal on Tuesday, with some anti-government leaders charging that an open vote could not be guaranteed because four of five members of the Electoral Council are viewed as partial to Chavez. The opposition decision appeared to be aimed at appealing to international support and discrediting Venezuela's government, which has strong approval ratings.

"The main objection was the digital fingerprint machine, which was removed, and now their line is, `We don' t trust the system, there must be another trick there,'" said Jose Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director of Human Rights Watch, which has been harshly critical of Chavez.

"It's really hard to understand what exactly the political opposition leadership has in mind. But certainly it is not going to help them to present themselves as victims that deserve solidarity from the international community. With these kinds of tactics, I don't think they'll gain any ground."

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