Venezuela vote expected to be tight

02/15/2009 10:58 AM

02/23/2010 1:20 PM

President Hugo Chavez's bid to run for reelection in 2012 and beyond was expected to produce a tight tally Sunday night after Venezuelans voted in a critical referendum to abandon all term limits on elected officials.

Polls closed at 6 p.m., although those still in line at that time were allowed to vote. There were no reports of major glitches in the latest of several national votes held in the South American nation.

''One more time we've showed a great display of civil behavior,'' said Tibisay Lucena, president of the National Electoral Council, in announcing that most voting precincts had closed.

Results may not been known until midnight, with the Council expected to release no partial results and wait until the winner is clear.

Chavez and his allies urged opponents on Sunday to accept the Council's results, no matter the outcome. The opponents refused, saying they feared that pro-Chavez forces would resort to vote fraud to win.

By the time polls closed, opposition forces had not raised any major concerns with the balloting.

Pre-election polls had given Chavez a slight advantage in a fiercely fought campaign to determine whether Venezuelans would scrap term limits that would force him from office in 2013. By then, he will have been in power for 14 years.

Chavez, 54, has said he needs at least 20 years in power to fully transform Venezuela into the kind of socialist system he envisions.

''Today my political destiny is being decided,'' Chavez said after voting in a Caracas district. ''The future of the country is at stake.''

Chavez has insulted his opponents as lackeys of the United States, while opponents say he has governed like a dictator and wants to stay in power for life, much as Cuba's Fidel Castro, his self-declared mentor.

Castro himself weighed in with a column published Sunday in the Communist newspaper Granma, saying that ''our future is inseparable'' from the referendum result in Venezuela.

Cuban depends heavily on discounted oil from Venezuela, and pays part of the bill with the labor of the estimated 30,000 medical personnel, teachers, sports coaches and other technicians working in Venezuela.

The referendum is being closely watched not only in Havana but also in Washington and throughout Latin America because Chavez has formed an anti-Washington bloc along with Cuba and the presidents of Bolivia, Nicaragua and Ecuador.

More than 16 million Venezuelans were eligible to vote. Voting is not obligatory as it is in many Latin American countries.

Fernando Gomez, a 48-year-old carpenter, said he voted YES to give Chavez a chance to seek reelection.

''We have a country where the public decides what happens,'' said Gomez, at a polling station at the Dr. Jose de Jesus Arocha high school in the slum neighborhood of Petare. ''Chavez has done a lot of good things.''

He cited free educational programs for adults, free health care programs staffed by Cuban doctors and free housing given out by the government.

Ana Blanco, a nursing assistant, said she voted NO.

''We need to give the opportunity to another person to be president,'' she said. ''Chavez has done good things, but we need new ideas.''

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