Chavez supporters celebrate in anticipation of re-election

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The Independent US

Supporters of President Hugo Chavez celebrated in the streets yesterday even as some polling stations remained open in an election that could give one of the US government's fiercest rivals another six years in power.

Chavez backers cruised downtown Caracas in caravans honking horns, shouting "Chavez isn't going anywhere" and setting off fireworks, as campaign aides cited exit polls pointing to a sweeping victory over challenger Manuel Rosales.

A Chavez win would solidify his self-styled socialist revolution and further boost his campaign to create a counterweight to US influence globally. Rosales has accused Chavez of edging Venezuela toward one-man rule.

A top Rosales adviser, Teodoro Petkoff, said Sunday evening that the voting process "was carried out in a satisfactory manner."

He said some irregularities had occurred - including attempts to remove ballots without first permitting an audit - but that most were resolved. Another member of the Rosales camp had accused pro-Chavez soldiers of reopening closed polling stations and busing voters to them.

Polling centers began to close at 4 p.m but many remained opened, by law, until the last queued voters could cast ballots. The vote was being monitored by observers including the European Union, the Carter Center and the Organization of American States.

Since he first won office in 1998, Chavez has increasingly dominated all branches of government and his allies now control congress, state offices and the judiciary. He has called US President George W. Bush the devil, allied himself with Iran and influenced elections across the region.

Chavez also has used Venezuela's oil wealth to his political advantage. He has channeled oil profits toward multibillion-dollar programs for the poor including subsidized food, free university education and cash benefits for single mothers. He has helped allies from Cuba to Bolivia with oil and petrodollars.

Yesterday, the incumbent waved and blew kisses to cheering supporters as he voted in a Caracas slum.

"I'm absolutely sure that the process is and will be totally transparent," said Chavez, who arrived in a red Volkswagen Beetle. "Let's vote, leave calmly and wait for the results."

Rosales, a cattle rancher and governor of western Zulia state who stepped down temporarily to run against Chavez, has rebuilt the opposition from its referendum defeat.

His campaign focused on issues such as rampant crime and corruption, widely seen as Chavez's main vulnerabilities.

Chavez supporters jarred voters awake hours before dawn in Caracas with recordings of reveille blaring from truck-mounted loudspeakers.

"We're here to support our president, who has helped us so much," said Jose Domingo Izaguirre, a factory worker who waited hours to vote. His family recently moved into new government housing.

Rosales supporters accused Chavez of deepening class divisions with searing rhetoric demonizing his opponents.

Alicia Primera, a 54-year-old housewife, was among voters so passionate about the choice that they camped out overnight in voting queues.

"I voted for Chavez previously. I cried for him," Primera said. "Now I'm crying for him to leave. He's sown a lot of hate with his verbiage."

The campaign has been hostile, with Chavez calling Rosales a pawn of Washington and Rosales saying he was on the alert for fraud. Rosales' campaign had endorsed the electronic voting system as trustworthy - as long as no attempts were made to thwart it.

More than 125,000 soldiers and reservists were deployed to safeguard the balloting.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Janelle Hironimus stressed "the importance of a free, fair and transparent process."

Conflict and ambition have marked the rise of Chavez, 52, from a boy selling homemade sweets in a dusty backwater to a failed coup commander in 1992 and now a leader who could set the tone of Latin American politics for years to come.

Constitutional reforms he oversaw in 1999 triggered new elections the following year that he easily won. Loyalists helped him survive a 2002 coup, a subsequent general strike and a 2004 recall referendum.

Chavez says he would convene a commission upon re-election to propose constitutional reforms, likely including an end to presidential term limits. Current law prevents him from running again in 2012.

Some Rosales supporters worry a re-elected Chavez would turn more radical. Chavez insists he is a democrat and will continue to respect private property - though he has boosted state control over the oil industry and has said he might nationalize utilities. Venezuela is the world's fifth largest oil exporter and soaring oil prices have made it the continent's fastest growing economy.

Chavez has pledged at least US$1.1 billion (¤830 million) in loans and financial aid to Latin American countries in the past two years, and billions more in bond bailouts for friendly governments as well as generously financed oil deals. But the largesse has proved a weakness at home, with polls suggesting many Venezuelans believe the aid impedes efforts to address the country's own problems.

Chavez, who says Fidel Castro is like a father to him, has built increasingly close ties with Cuba, sending the island oil while thousands of Cuban doctors treat Venezuela's poor for free.

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