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Daily Archives: November 24, 2008

Venezuelans vote under Chavez shadow in local polls

by Sophie Nicholson*

Venezuelans yesterday began voting for governors and mayors in elections seen as a popularity test for leftist President Hugo Chavez, one year after the anti-US leader lost a referendum on extending his authority.
Chavez supporters set off military wake-up calls and music in some districts, with polls open at around 6:00 am (1830 in Macau). Many queued in the dark at least one hour before voting began.
First estimates suggested abstention would be around 50 percent, with some 17 million eligible to vote. Polls were due to close at 4:00 pm (0430 in Macau).
Surveys suggest Chavez's United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) will likely hold most states and cities, but may lose some posts as voters express concern over escalating crime, corruption and inefficiency.
Chavez, in power for almost 10 years, has crossed the country campaigning for his party's candidates, ensuring that the polls will also test support for him and his socialist revolution.
"My destiny is at stake … Whether Chavez keeps governing Venezuela will depend on what happens on November 23," the president said recently.
Diverse opposition groups have meanwhile agreed to join together to increase chances for victory and run single candidates in a majority of 22 gubernatorial races and 328 mayoral races.
The opposition currently controls two states — northwestern Zulia and northeastern Nueva Esparta — and another five are in the hands of Chavez dissidents.
In one hotly-contested poll, a dissident candidate is running against Chavez's older brother to replace his father as governor of his home state of Barinas in the southwest.
Surveys suggest the opposition could win between five and seven governorships in their bid to gain back some lost power.
Opposition gains in symbolic areas of the oil-rich OPEC country such as Caracas or big states Chavez's allies have controlled for years would be the biggest blows.
Chavez, a friend to Iran, Russia and Cuba's Fidel Castro, is highly aware of his need for a visible victory to push forward his cause.
Critics say the president's constant campaigning alongside local candidates sidelined local issues such as rising insecurity or public services.
"Chavez avoids these problems because the evaluation of gubernatorial management in these spheres is terribly bad," said Luis Vicente Leon, an analyst from Datanalisis.
"He leads discussions onto areas where he feels stronger, such as attempts to overthrow him or revolution."
Chavez, 54, led a failed military coup in 1992 and was briefly overthrown for two days in April, 2002.
But until last year's narrow referendum loss, the outspoken anti-liberal — popular among the country's majority poor who he has helped with social programs — had always emerged from polls with convincing victories.
Famous for his fiery language, Chavez has threatened to imprison opponents, or even send tanks onto the streets if his party loses in the populous northwestern state of Carabobo.
Local and regional police were off duty Sunday to cede polling day control to some 140,000 soldiers.
Some 300 candidates, mainly from the opposition, have been prevented from running in the elections.
Many say that, despite last year's referendum defeat, the firebrand leader is still seeking to change the constitution in a bid to stay in office beyond 2013 when his second six-year term will end.


New unrest in Guinea Bissau following parliamentary vote

Guinea Bissau is once again in turmoil with an apparent mutiny against the president one week after parliamentary elections the international community hoped would bring stability.
Early Sunday morning soldiers fired at the residence of Guinea Bissau's president Joao Bernardo Vieira, who called neighbouring Senegalese president Abdoulaye Wade to warn him.
"There was a mutiny. Guinea-Bissau's president called President Wade to inform him that soldiers opened fire on his residence," Wade's spokesman El Hadji Amadou Sall said.
From Guinea Bissau, a source in the interior ministry said at least one of the alleged attackers was killed while several soldiers loyal to the president were wounded.
"We have noted one dead from the side of the attackers and several wounded in our ranks," said an interior ministry official, who wanted to remain anonymous.
"We succeeded in arresting several soldiers," he added.
A source in the general staff of the army in Guinea Bissau said the situation was under control Sunday.
The area where the president lives "is entirely controlled by our troops," said the source, who would not give his name.
"A group of soldiers last night tried to get hold of a arms depot in the president's residence. There was an exchange of gunfire," the official said.
He added that three of the attacking soldiers were arrested but the others made off with some weapons including rocket launchers.
The unrest follows exactly one week after parliamentary elections in the tiny West African country. Provisional official results released on Friday showed the vote was won by the dominant African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC).
International observers have said the vote was fair and transparent. They see the election as a crucial step in rebuilding the country a decade after it was torn apart by civil war in 1998 and 1999.
Guinea Bissau has been plagued by a series of bloody coups and uprisings, and in recent years has become a key African drugs hub.
On Sunday the African Union quickly reacted to the news of the mutiny saying it "condemns in advance any attempt to seize power by force."
African Union chief Jean Ping said he was in contact with Vieira and the leaders of neighbouring countries to monitor the situation.
PAIGC, which has dominated the political landscape since the west African nation gained independence from Portugal in 1974, bagged 67 out of the 100 parliamentary seats, the national electoral commission said.
President Vieira first ruled the country from 1980 to 1999 with support from the army and the PAIGC party. He went into exile following a civil war before returning in 2004 and being re-elected a year later. The current PAIGC leader is not on good terms with the president.
Experts say the newly-formed Republican Party for Independence and Development (PRID), created with the backing of President Vieira, failed in these elections, winning only three seats, as voters did not want the head of state becoming too powerful.
The Party for Social Renovation (PRS) of former president Kumba Yalla, who was ousted in a 2003 coup, won 28 seats. Some African diplomats speculate that Sunday's attack could have been carried out by troops loyal to Yalla who want to have their voices heard after their party did not manage to win a strong position in parliament.
Guinea Bissau languishes at the bottom of the United Nations development index, only 37 percent of the population has been to school and the country is currently battling a cholera epidemic.
International experts say the country does not have strong enough state institutions to take on the international drugs cartels which use it as a hub to transport South American cocaine to the lucrative European market.
According to experts, Guinea Bissau, which lists cashew exports as its biggest source of income, is in danger of becoming Africa's first "narco-state," controlled by drugs traffickers.