Pro-Chavez candidates set to sweep congressional elections in Venezuela

A leading lawmaker in President Hugo Chavez's governing party predicted a sweeping victory in congressional elections Sunday, saying internal party tallies suggested governing party candidates could win more than two-thirds of seats. Willian Lara, a leader of Chavez's Fifth Republic Movement party, also said pro-Chavez candidates, including those from other parties, could win all 167 seats in the National Assembly.

"The Fifth Republic Movement has won, in total, the election of 114 legislators who are militants" Lara said. "According to the figures that we have, the 167 members of the National Assembly ... are supporters of the national project" led by Chavez. Lara spoke before official results were available.

With 79 percent of votes counted, officials estimated turnout at 25 percent, National Electoral Council chief Jorge Rodriguez said. Officials, meanwhile, said government foes had tried to disrupt the vote by blowing up an oil pipeline. They called the pipeline explosion on Saturday night a failed plot aimed at paralyzing supplies to Venezuela's largest oil refinery and destabilizing the country.

Officials and election observers said the voting proceeded peacefully Sunday, while thousands of soldiers were deployed to keep order. Chavez dismissed the boycott by some parties as a failed ploy to sabotage legitimate elections and avoid an embarrassing defeat. "The whole world knows a true democracy is in motion here in Venezuela," Chavez said after voting at a school where cheering supporters greeted him outside.

Maria Corina Machado, who leads the U.S.-backed vote watchdog group Sumate, called the vote "illegitimate." "We are going to have a single party parliament that doesn't represent ample sectors of society," Machado said in a statement.

Government officials say the U.S. has been meddling in the elections through Sumate, which receives money from the Washington-based National Endowment for Democracy, a private group funded by the U.S. Congress.

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Ali Rodriguez has called Sumate's leaders "mercenaries of the U.S. government." Chavez accused the United States, with which he often clashes, of being behind the boycott, a charge Washington has denied.

The boycotting parties said they did not trust the voting system. Chavez said Venezuela has the most solid electoral system in South America, and that its integrity was secure despite "attempts to sabotage this process."

Government officials reported several disturbances leading up to the vote, including blasts from small explosives that injured three people in Caracas on Friday and the pipeline explosion Saturday in the western state of Zulia. Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez said the attack on the pipeline, which carries 400,000 barrels a day to the giant Amuay refinery, was an attempt to repeat a crippling two-month oil strike aimed at ousting Chavez that ended in 2003. Nobody was hurt in the explosion, and Ramirez said the refinery has enough inventories to cover supply needs.

"We already know who is behind this situation, and we have made some arrests," Interior Minister Jesse Chacon said, calling it a clear act of sabotage. He suggested some in the opposition were linked to the incident, saying "that's how those who are withdrawing play the game."

The military said it stepped up security at oil installations to prevent any possible sabotage in the country, the world's No. 5 oil exporter and major supplier to the U.S. Chavez said, however, that such acts had no effect on the voting process.

Chavez said traditional parties that withdrew would be responsible for their own demise. "They are old parties that are already dead," Chavez said, reports the AP. I.L.

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