Chavez claims victory in referendum

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President Hugo Chavez today claimed victory in the popular referendum to oust him.

President Hugo Chavez survived a popular referendum to oust him in a vote that attracted so many Venezuelans that they overwhelmed ballot stations, according to results announced today.

Backers of the leftist populist president immediately set off fireworks and began celebrating in the streets of the capital in the pre-dawn darkness.

Francisco Carrasquero, president of the National Elections Council, stopped short of declaring Chavez the outright winner. But vote counts he released showed the firebrand former army paratrooper had a virtually insurmountable 58-42 percent lead, with 94 percent of the vote counted.

Carrasquero said 4,991,483 votes had been cast against Chavez's recall, with 3,576,517 in favor.

Haydee Deutsch, an opposition leader, said fraud had been committed and that the opposition "has no doubt that we won by an overwhelming majority."

Indicating a possible split in the five-member National Elections Council, Sobella Mejia - one of the members who is aligned with the opposition - told a news conference before the tallies were announced that any release of partial figures would be premature and invalid.

There was no immediate reaction from former U.S. President Jimmy Carter or Cesar Gaviria, head of the Organization of American States, who helped monitor the vote.

Questions about the future of the world's fifth-largest oil exporter have contributed to record high oil prices. On Monday, crude oil prices hit a new all-time high of US$46.90 per barrel amid uncertainty about Chavez's rule and continuing unrest in Iraq.

The sheer number of voters in Sunday's referendum - believed to be a record for any election in Venezuela - along with problems with electronic thumbprint ID machines, caused election officials to postpone the polls' closing to midnight - eight hours later than first scheduled. They said the polling stations would be kept open even longer until everyone in line voted.

The first-ever recall vote for a president in Venezuela's history was aimed at putting a lid on years of often-violent political unrest, including a bloody coup, and followed a lengthy and complicated process of mass signings of petitions.

By freely spending on social programs with Venezuela's oil revenues, Chavez has become a champion among the majority poor. But his vilification of the rich, close ties with Cuban leader Fidel Castro and centralization of power have earned him many enemies among the better off.

Some lines at polling places extended for 2 kilometers (1.25 miles). Opposition leaders appealed to Venezuelans to bring food and water to those still in line.

"This is the largest turnout I have ever seen," exclaimed

Even as votes were still being cast Sunday night, hundreds of "Chavistas," as Chavez supporters are called, converged on the presidential palace, blowing whistles and chanting that Chavez won. Leaflets called on "everyone to go to the streets to celebrate and defend the victory."

Enrique Mendoza, a state governor considered a likely presidential candidate if Chavez were ousted, urged voters to not abandon the lines, saying every ballot would be counted. He blasted the "absurd delays and technical difficulties" in the voting.

Some of the electronic thumbprint registration machines, aimed at preventing people from voting more than once, had difficulty registering thumbprints. Even Chavez had to move to another machine to register his thumbprint after the first one failed.

At one large polling station Sunday night, a line of frustrated voters - some of whom had waited in line for 12 hours - chanted: "Out with the thumbprint machines!"

Activists from both sides urged voters to the polls, but they needed little pushing. Venezuelans tend to love or hate Chavez, a 50-year-old former paratroop commander, with sentiment drawn along class lines.

"The hate that the president has sown among Venezuelans is unacceptable," said Lula Golding, who voted early in Caracas' trendy Chacao district.

Under Chavez, the government has paid for literacy programs, scholarships and free medical care for the poor. Thousands of Cuban doctors, dentists and nurses work in poor barrios across this South American nation.

Chavez called on the opposition to accept the results, and pledged that he would also do so.

Venezuelans could either vote "no" to allow Chavez to serve out the remainder of his six-year term, which began in 2000, or "yes" to recall him. For Chavez to lose, more must vote against him than the nearly 3.8 million who voted for him in the 2000 presidential elections, and there must also be more "yes" votes than "no" votes.

If Chavez lost, he would have had to immediately step down and Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel would have taken over until new elections within 30 days.

Uncertainty about the future of the world's fifth-largest oil exporter has contributed to record high oil prices, which have reached more than US$46 a barrel.

The referendum comes after a two-year drive to oust Chavez, which included a short-lived 2002 coup, a devastating two-month strike and political riots last March that claimed a dozen lives.