U.S. criticizes Venezuela's Chavez total victory

Allies of leftist President Hugo Chavez defended the election win that gave them complete control of congress, as both the U.S. government and the opposition questioned the legitimacy of the vote that threatened to further polarize Venezuelan society. The main opposition parties had boycotted Sunday's congressional elections, and on Monday their representatives said the 25 percent turnout reflected the widespread distrust of an electoral process that gave Chavez allies all 167 seats in the National Assembly.

Washington, long skeptical of Chavez's commitment to democracy and unhappy with his close ties to Cuban leader Fidel Castro, cast doubt on the transparency of Venezuela's electoral system. "Given that rate of abstention, plus expressions of concern by prominent Venezuelans, we would see that this reflects a broad lack of confidence in the impartiality and transparency of the electoral process," U.S. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said on Monday.

Chavez, a fierce critic of U.S. President George Bush, has said Washington was behind the boycott as part of a larger plot to "destabilize" the country. U.S. officials have denied the allegation.

Pro-Chavez politicians fiercely defended the vote, slamming Venezuela's opposition and private media outlets for mounting an alleged smear campaign to delegitimize the elections. "The direct consequence of having carried out transparent elections ... is a calculated attack, scorn, insults and finger-pointing," said Jorge Rodriguez, president of the National Electoral Council.

Sunday's 25 percent voter turnout was lower than recent Venezuelan congressional elections in 1998 and 2000, when it measured between 50 and 60 percent. Chavez's supporters say the opposition called for the boycott because polls showed they were going to be beaten.

The election is likely to further polarize Venezuela, which has been deeply divided by Chavez's "revolutionary" rhetoric, his increasingly close ties with Cuba's Fidel Castro and his efforts to establish a socialist economic model in this oil-rich South American nation. "Silence united Venezuelans," said Gerardo Blyde of the opposition Justice First party, citing the low turnout.

Official results were still pending Monday, but internal tallies showed Chavez's party won 114 seats and the remainder went to aligned parties, said governing party leader Willian Lara.

That would give Chavez's Fifth Republic Movement the needed two-thirds majority to allow it to amend the constitution. Some lawmakers have said they hope to consider a revision to extend term limits for all offices, including the president.

Current term limits would bar Chavez from running again in 2012 if he is re-elected next year. Polls suggest he remains popular and has no formidable challenger. Newly elected congressman Pedro Lander said Monday the new National Assembly will aim to "deepen the revolutionary process more and more."

Sunday's election left anti-Chavez parties, some of which long dominated Venezuelan politics, without representation in the run-up to presidential elections in December 2006.

The low turnout was a disappointment for the government, which had urged Venezuelans to go the polls and called the boycott a ploy to sabotage legitimate elections. "We're not satisfied with the results of the elections," Foreign Minister Ali Rodriguez said, reports the AP. I.L.

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