Caracas: In an election widely perceived as an appraisal of President Hugo Chavez, voters in several regions of Venezuela on Sunday elected governors in two states and mayors in 11 municipalities, including the country`s second-largest city.
The mayorship of Maracaibo, which has recently been a bastion of support for the opposition, is considered the big prize. Pro-Chavez candidate Gian Carlos Di Martino is competing against Eveling Trejo, the wife of former Maracaibo Mayor Manuel Rosales, along with several other lesser-known candidates.
Rosales fled the country last year after prosecutors brought corruption-related charges against him. Rosales, who denies any wrongdoing, was granted political asylum in Peru. During the campaign, election officials barred Trejo from using posters bearing the image of her husband`s face.
More than 1.7 million registered voters are eligible to participate in Sunday`s elections. The governorships of Guarico and Amazonas — rural states that have traditionally favored pro-Chavez candidates — are also up for grabs.
In Amazonas, Edgildo Palau, a member of Chavez`s ruling party, and six other candidates are trying to wrest the office from Liborio Guarulla, a former Chavez ally whose party broke ranks with the president earlier this year.
Guarico`s election pits pro-Chavez hopeful Luis Gallardo against Carlos Proposeri, an attorney backed by a coalition of major opposition parties, along with five other aspirants. The current governor is pro-Chavez.
The elections are seen as a barometer of Chavez`s popularity at a time when he`s facing numerous domestic woes, including a lingering economic recession coupled with double-digit inflation and rampant violent crime that has turned Venezuela into one of Latin America`s most dangerous countries. An emboldened opposition, meanwhile, is calling attention to the government`s failure to remedy such pressing problems.
The National Electoral Council decided to proceed with the elections despite torrential rains and massive flooding that have killed at least 34 people and forced more than 5,000 Venezuelans from their homes. More than 74,000 people have taken refuge at hundreds of government shelters scattered throughout affected regions, according to authorities.
"We ask God that it stop raining," Chavez wrote in a newspaper column published Saturday.
The president also urged his countrymen to exercise their right to vote, "to sovereignly express their will at the polls, to continue strengthening the model of participatory democracy."
Voting began at 6 am and was scheduled to conclude at 6 pm or when all voters waiting in line at polling stations have cast their ballots. The electoral council was expected to release initial results Sunday evening.