Strongman Chavez is heading for re-election

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The self-proclaimed "revolutionary" regime of President Hugo Chavez in Venezuela underwent its most important test so far yesterday, as voters decided whether or not to give the former coup-leader - elected to the presidency in December, 1998 - six more years in power. Polls suggested they would vote by a large margin to keep him in office.

The self-proclaimed "revolutionary" regime of President Hugo Chavez in Venezuela underwent its most important test so far yesterday, as voters decided whether or not to give the former coup-leader - elected to the presidency in December, 1998 - six more years in power. Polls suggested they would vote by a large margin to keep him in office.

The election, required under the new constitution which was approved by referendum in December, pits Mr Chavez against his former military co-conspirator, Lt-Col Francisco Arias. The two men led a failed coup attempt in February 1992 against the government of Carlos Andres Perez, and later spent two years in jail.

The only civilian in yesterday's race, Claudio Fermin, a former mayor of Caracas, was expected to come a distant third. Also at stake in the elections were the composition of a new, single-chamber congress; state governments and the Caracas city authorities.

"If the new republic was born in December," the charismatic president declared, "then today we are baptising it." Originally scheduled for 28 May, the "baptism" was delayed by two months after the electoral authority - handpicked by supporters of the president - admitted it was not up to the task.

A new board was appointed, with the help of civic organisations. Four members of the original authority were formally accused last week of misuse of public funds. The last-minute abandonment of the elections is estimated to have cost the taxpayer up to £60m, and prolonged the tense period of transition between old and new constitutions.

In his 18 months in power, Mr Chavez has concentrated on the consolidation of his political project, aimed at replacing the country's traditional, two-party system with what he terms "participatory democracy", and at eliminating "the oligarchs".

The 1999 constitution, drafted by an assembly over 90 per cent composed of Chavez loyalists, extends the presidential term and allows immediate re-election. It gives the military an enhanced role in national life (including the right to vote, exercised for the first time yesterday) and changes the country's name to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, in honour of its independence leader, Simon Bolivar.

Having presided over a two-decade-long economic decline, the old guard of Venezuelan politics was effectively obliterated by the rise of Mr Chavez, and no coherent opposition has yet emerged at national level to challenge his leftist populism.

Lt-Col Arias has no party of his own and his ragtag electoral coalition ranges from the far-left Bandera Roja (Red Flag) party to organisations that describe Mr Chavez as a communist. He has said he would restore business confidence, put the military back in the barracks and stress good relations with Washington rather than with Mr Chavez's close friend, Cuban President Fidel Castro.

On the economic and social front, he points out, the government has little to shout about. Its policy of cutting back on the production of oil (Venezuela's main export) in coordination with Opec and other producers helped stimulate the tripling of petroleum prices. However, the local economy has yet to respond, and shrank by over 7 per cent last year. Unemployment hit 18 per cent, by official reckoning.

Crime levels have also worsened, and some weekends produce as many as 100 homicides. Large numbers of middle-class Venezuelans are leaving the country, citing rising crime, the lack of professional opportunities and mistrust of Mr Chavez's intentions and ability. Investment, both local and foreign, has been virtually paralysed by political uncertainty.

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