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Chavez foes say he's manipulating Venezuela's elections

CARACAS — America Arrieta's vote is more valuable than the laundry machine and refrigerator she says the ruling party gave her last week.

As she waved the green banner of an opposition candidate at a rally over the weekend, Arrieta said she has voted for President Hugo Chavez in the past — but has lost faith in the man.

"Chavez can give me anything he wants," she said of the gifts reserved for party faithful. "But he can't tell me how to vote."

As this nation of 27 million goes to the polls Sunday to elect the National Parliament, some say Chavez and his party are bending rules and ignoring the constitution to gain the upper hand.

Critics point to new voting districts and electoral laws that make it virtually impossible for Chavez to lose his parliamentary majority; the National Electoral Council, the overseer of the vote, being stacked with Chavez partisans, and government candidates who have deep pockets and a media empire at their disposal.

Pollsters say the nation is almost evenly divided between supporters of Chavez's Unified Socialist Party of Venezuela, or PSUV, and the coalition of opposition parties.

But most believe the PSUV will maintain its control of Congress and perhaps even hold onto the two-thirds majority Chavez needs to rubber-stamp his initiatives. One reason is an American tradition: gerrymandering.

The government recently carved out several new voting districts that observers say maximize the pro-Chavez vote while sapping the opposition's.

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