Venezuela votes in referendum on Chavez rule

 

Venezuelans turned out early and in large numbers today to vote in a historic referendum that will either remove left-wing President Hugo Chavez from office or give him a new mandate to govern for the next two years.

Even before polls opened just after 6 a.m. (local time), long lines of hundreds of voters formed outside ballot centers, which were guarded by troops. Some brought chairs to sit on, sipped coffee from thermos flasks or read newspapers.

"Everyone is voting for freedom, for the future of our kids and to end all the hatred," said physiotherapist Mercedes Arrieche as she waited to vote in a wealthy east Caracas neighborhood.

At some centers where polling was delayed by technical or administrative glitches, electors chanted "We want to vote!"

Venezuelans are hoping the referendum in the world's No. 5 oil exporter will help resolve a long-running and often violent political conflict over the rule of Mr Chavez, a firebrand nationalist first elected in 1998.

But there are fears a disputed outcome, especially if Mr Chavez loses, could trigger protests and violence. Early results could be announced before midnight tonight.

Venezuelan voters were being asked to answer "Yes" or "No" on touch-screen voting machines to the question of whether the president should be recalled from office or continue his current term, which still has more than two years to run.

Among the early-risers was Mr Chavez. "This is a happy day for our participative democracy, our constitution and our people," he told state television from the presidential palace.

Earlier, his supporters in Caracas had roused voters with firecrackers and bugle music.

Both Mr Chavez and his opponents have predicted they will win the referendum. The vote and its aftermath will be watched across the world because of Venezuela's importance as a major oil producer and leading energy supplier to the United States.