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Chavez hopes for big victory in governors', mayors' races

CARACAS — Venezuelans elect mayors and governors Sunday in a key test of President Hugo Chavez's political strength.

An overwhelming victory by Chavez's candidates would prompt him to continue pulling Venezuela to the left, analysts said. It would also embolden him to seek public approval early next year to overturn term limits that currently keep him from running for president again in 2012.

But strong advances by opposition candidates would constrain Chavez's ambitions to construct a socialist state at home and to extend his anti-globalization and anti-United States influence throughout Latin America.

"If I am to continue governing Venezuela, it will depend on what happens," Chavez said this week and then referred to himself in the third person: "Make no mistake, Chavez's political destiny is in play here."

Opposition parties won only two of the 23 governor's races in 2004. Analysts expect them to win from four to 10 races this time.

If Chavez's candidates in the United Socialist Party of Venezuela win a majority of the races, he undoubtedly would declare victory.

The opposition parties also hope they can declare a triumph by pointing to their advances, in an effort to stifle his ambitions.

"If Chavez doesn't win enough governor's races, he won't be able to confidently seek a referendum for re-election, which is want he really wants," said Herbert Koeneke, a political science professor at Simon Bolivar University in Caracas who is a Chavez critic. Koeneke predicted that opposition party candidates would win as many as 10 governor's races.

Nelson Merentes, a former Chavez government minister, predicted opposition parties will win only four races. "The poor have a lot of hope in Chavez," Merentes said. "He's a good communicator."

Pollster Oscar Schemel said that Chavez is betting that his personal approval rating - which ranges from 47 percent and 57 percent - will carry his candidates to victory despite the highest inflation rate in Latin America, a homicide rate that has doubled under Chavez and frequent food shortages at supermarkets.

Opposition officials charge that Chavez has stacked the deck by having his appointed officials bar several popular opposition candidates from running because of alleged corruption.

The indefatigable Chavez has campaigned across the country, drawing large crowds of red-shirted supporters at each stop. He also used including constant appearances on state television networks to rally public support.

Government-backed communal councils have helped Chavez candidates by distributing thousands of refrigerators, washing machines and mattresses to the poor.

Polls show that opposition party candidates are likely to win the states of Zulia, Nueva Esparta, Sucre and Carabobo.

Pollster Luis Vicente Leon said the races in Miranda, Yaracuy, Tachira and Barinas are virtually tied.

The election in the western plains state of Barinas has attracted outsized interest because it pits Chavez's older brother, Adan, against Julio Cesar Reyes, the popular mayor of the city of Barinas. Chavez's father is the outgoing governor.

"It would be a terrible blow to Chavez," said Leon, who has polled for opposition parties.

On the local level, one key race features former first lady Marisabel Rodriguez running for mayor of Barquisimeto while strongly criticizing her ex-husband.

Carlos Ocariz, a 37-year-old former member of Congress, is running against Jesse Chacon, a former Chavez minister, to be mayor of Sucre, a district within metropolitan Caracas that was formerly a Chavez stronghold.

Manuel Rosales, who lost the 2006 presidential race to Chavez, is running for mayor of Maracaibo. Term limits keep him from seeking re-election as governor of Zulia. Chavez is hoping to jail Rosales next week on alleged corruption charges.

Nearly 17 million Venezuelans are eligible to elect 22 of the country's 23 governors and 328 mayors. Turnout is expected to be about 55 percent. Polls close at 3:30 p.m. Eastern Standard Time (4:00 p.m. in Venezuela). Results are not expected until 9 p.m. Sunday, and complete results likely won't be known until Monday.

Both sides have urged their supporters to vote.

Chavez suffered his first electoral defeat a year ago when many of his supporters stayed home rather than approve a proposal that would have allowed him to seek re-election indefinitely and given the state greater control over the economy.

Opposition leaders have implored supporters not to boycott the polls. "Not voting = voting red," read the lead headline in the anti-Chavez newspaper Tal Cual on Monday.

Fueling doubts about a fair vote, the national electoral council never counted about six percent of the votes in last year's referendum for reasons that have never been fully explained.

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