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Originally published Sunday, September 19, 2010 at 9:51 AM

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Chavez foes face obstacles ahead of crucial vote

Venezuela's political opposition is at a critical crossroads, trying to win control of the National Assembly for the first time in Hugo Chavez's 11-year presidency.

Associated Press Writer

CARACAS, Venezuela —

Venezuela's political opposition is at a critical crossroads, trying to win control of the National Assembly for the first time in Hugo Chavez's 11-year presidency.

If the opposition wrests a majority away from allies of Chavez in the Sept. 26 elections, they could finally try to impose checks on the president's expanding power. However, an opposition defeat would embolden Chavez to push ahead with transforming Venezuela into a socialist state.

Many Venezuelans expect a close race, but the odds appear to be stacked in Chavez's favor.

Opposition candidates are campaigning with less funds and less television airtime than their pro-Chavez foes, and are often out shaking hands just as Chavez is on TV campaigning for members of his United Socialist Party of Venezuela - known as PSUV, its Spanish acronym. Some opposition candidates also fear that new rules and redrawn districts under an election law passed last year will add to their disadvantages.

"We have a campaign led by the PSUV with a lot of resources that we know are public resources - even when the constitution prohibits it," said opposition candidate Maria Corina Machado, who led flag-waving supporters while greeting voters on a walk through the Las Minas slum in Caracas

She complained about what she called a government-orchestrated propaganda machine that churns out spots ridiculing Chavez's critics, runs talk shows dominated by ruling party hopefuls and picks up all of the president's speeches.

Just as she was starting her visit, Chavez launched into a marathon speech that all Venezuelan TV channels broadcast by government order, a frequent practice by Chavez popularly known as a "cadena," or "network." He sought to contrast his candidates with rivals who he said represent the interests of the wealthy.

"We are song, love, life, happiness - the future. They are the past - disgraceful, terrible, searing, painful," Chavez bellowed. "We must demolish the lies of the squalid ones, the rotten bourgeoisie and its media outlets."

He claims that many newspapers and radio stations tend to favor the opposition. Yet on television, the main avenue to reach most Venezuelans, Chavez has the upper hand.

Venezuela's electoral council is dominated by members widely viewed as favoring Chavez, and the council has for years ignored laws that bar the president and other elected officials from actively campaigning for candidates. Chavez insists he has the right to campaign for candidates because he is also president of his party. He has threatened legal action against Vicente Diaz, the lone member of the electoral council who has criticized his heavy use of state media ahead of the vote.

Meanwhile, Chavez's smiling face is ubiquitous on campaign signs hanging on lamp posts and buildings. While his popularity has declined in the past year, Chavez is still the country's most popular politician - the uniting glue for the slate of candidates who won primaries in his party.

Machado said another big obstacle is fundraising. She has struggled to convince supporters and business leaders to contribute to her campaign because they fear reprisals by the government and Chavez-friendly prosecutors. Nevertheless, she is the favorite to win her largely upper-middle-class district, and has also been actively campaigning in slums once viewed as solid pro-Chavez territory.

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She and other Chavez opponents are trying to capitalize on domestic problems, including widespread violent crime, power outages in some regions, a severe housing shortage and 30-percent inflation. The opposition is also trying to reverse what many view as one of its big mistakes: boycotting the last congressional elections in 2005 due to concerns about fairness, and largely shutting themselves out of power.

Steve Ellner, a political science professor at Venezuela's University of the East, believes the opposition could indeed win votes from Venezuelans who have become disillusioned with domestic problems.

"It's a powerful point against Chavez and it's going to affect him in these elections," Ellner said.

But Ellner said Chavez foes also have not presented a unified program as an alternative, an important factor weighing against them.

The opposition's goal is to win a majority of the 165 seats in the National Assembly. Even if they fall short, they could still put constraints on Chavez's lawmaking power if they prevent him from winning a two-thirds majority.

The opposition - a diverse collection of left-leaning parties, old guard conservatives and moderates - has managed to smooth over many of its divisions and agreed on single candidates in most districts. But Chavez's party has traditionally been effective in mobilizing its more than 1 million active members - including many public employees - to campaign and organize get-out-the-vote initiatives. The party usually blares bugle calls from loudspeakers on the morning of election day and ferries voters from hillside slums to polling stations.

Some opposition candidates also argue that a law approved by the Chavista-dominated National Assembly last year gives the president's allies an unfair advantage by giving greater weight to votes in rural, sparsely populated districts where Chavez remains most popular. They say other changes in the law, which redrew the lines of several districts in five of Venezuela's 23 states and eastern Caracas, amount to gerrymandering.

"It was part of the government's electoral strategy," said Francine Jacome, a political science professor at Caracas' Metropolitan University, suggesting that Chavez probably took notice that his adversaries gained ground in the last state and municipal elections in 2008.

Chavez's critics also accuse him of using corruption probes and criminal charges to sideline key adversaries. Several politicians, including former presidential candidate Manuel Rosales, have gone into exile after being charged with crimes that they call politically motivated. Chavez denies holding sway over the justice system, saying any politicians who break the law should face justice.

On television, meanwhile, the main government channel has been airing a steady stream of rallies and ads featuring Chavez's red-clad candidates.

The channel made a point of interviewing Machado, putting on screen a photograph of her 2005 meeting with Chavez's longtime nemesis, former President George W. Bush. But the interview on Thursday was abruptly cut off when state TV shifted to a campaign rally where Chavez spoke to a theater filled with supporters.

He had a message for the opposition: "We're going to demolish them!"

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