Venezuelans are choosing governors and state lawmakers on Sunday in elections that have become a key test of whether President Hugo Chavez’s movement can endure if the cancer he is battling proves terminal.
Voters were awakened before dawn by fireworks and reveille blaring from speakers mounted on trucks in some areas of Caracas.
Governorships in all of the country’s 23 states are being decided in the elections. Mr. Chavez’s party currently controls all but eight of the states, and if it maintains its dominance the vote could help the president’s allies deepen his socialist policies.
The vote is the first time in Mr. Chavez’s nearly 14-year-old presidency that he has been unable to actively campaign. He hasn’t spoken publicly since undergoing cancer surgery on Tuesday in Cuba.
For the opposition, the elections are apt to determine the fate of its leadership. The most pivotal race involves opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who gave Mr. Chavez his stiffest challenge yet in the Oct. 7 presidential election, and is now running for re-election in Miranda state against Elias Jaua, Chavez’s former vice president.
The elections could also be an important dry run for new presidential elections if cancer cuts short Mr. Chavez’s presidency.
Mr. Chavez is due to be sworn in for another six-year term on Jan. 10. But if his condition forces him to step down, Venezuela’s constitution requires that new presidential elections be called promptly and held within 30 days.
Mr. Chavez said before undergoing the surgery that if he’s unable to continue, Vice President Nicolas Maduro should take his place and run for president.
Alida Delgado, a lawyer, was waiting to vote outside a school in an affluent neighbourhood of Miranda state, and said she was voting for Capriles because Mr. Chavez’s government has left the country immersed in rampant crime and a troubled economy. She said one of her sons moved away to Canada several years ago in search of work as a business manager.
As for Mr. Chavez, Ms. Delgado said “I hope he recovers, but I think there’s going to be change.”
“God willing, I think that soon we’re going to have new elections,” Ms. Delgado said, adding “May the opposition win.”
Mr. Chavez’s son-in-law, Jorge Arreaza, who is also the government’s science and technology minister, said in a phone call from Havana broadcast on television on Saturday that the president had called for supporters to turn out to vote.
Mr. Arreaza said that Mr. Chavez is in full control of his mental faculties and has been talking with his children and getting daily visits from Fidel Castro while recovering slowly from the surgery, which was his fourth cancer-related operation since June 2011.
Mr. Chavez’s political allies framed the election as a referendum on his legacy, urging people to dedicate the vote to Mr. Chavez.
Jesus Hernandez, a public school employee, said he would vote for Jaua because he is Mr. Chavez’s candidate. “We have a leader, and we have to follow that leader.”