Chavez, opposition battle in parliamentary elections Sunday

CARACAS, Venezuela _ Venezuelans appeared to be turning out in force Sunday as President Hugo Chavez and a coalition of opposition parties battled for control of the 165-seat National Parliament.

There were scattered reports of problems, but authorities said the process was taking place in relative calm.

In the working class neighborhood of Catia in Caracas, armed gunmen chased away opposition candidate Ivan Olivares of the Justice First party before he was able to vote, said Alejandro Castillo, who was with the entourage.

"They forced us away from the site and were shooting into the air," he said, adding the armed men were on motorcycles.

In the battleground state of Lara, opposition Governor Henri Falcon said Chavez's PSUV party violated the rules by campaigning outside some voting centers.

But there were no reports of widespread problems, and candidates from both factions said the process was evolving in relative calm.

Despite a slow start in some districts, by 10 a.m. all of the nation's 12,400 polling centers were operating, said Tibsay Lucena, the president of the National Electoral Council.

On his Twitter page, Chavez announced he was on his way to vote in the 23 de Enero neighborhood _ a longtime stronghold of his party.

Venezuelans began lining up before sunrise _ and many braced to wait for hours _ in what was seen as a referendum on the president's 12-year-old administration.

Chavez was hoping to hold onto the two-thirds majority he needs to have his initiatives rubber stamped and set the stage for his 2012 presidential bid.

For the opposition, the vote was seen as a chance to reassert itself after boycotting the 2005 legislative race and prove that it has the votes to take Chavez on in two years.

Pollsters say both sides were within a few points of each other. However, new voting districts and changes in the electoral law were expected to give the ruling party an edgeseating deputies.

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