CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelans chose governors and state lawmakers on Sunday in elections seen as a key test of whether President Hugo Chavez's movement can endure if the socialist leader leaves the political stage.
The vote was the first time in Chavez's nearly 14-year-old presidency that he has been unable to actively campaign. He hasn't spoken publicly since undergoing cancer surgery on Tuesday in Cuba. Despite appeals to vote by both the pro- and anti-Chavez camps, turnout appeared low at many polling stations in Caracas, with few voters in line.
Governorships in all of the country's 23 states were being decided in the elections. Chavez's party now controls all but eight of the states, and if it maintains its dominance the vote could help the president's allies deepen his socialist policies, including a drive to fortify grass-roots citizen councils that are directly funded by the central government.
For the opposition, the elections were expected to determine the fate of its leadership. The most pivotal race involved opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who gave Chavez his stiffest challenge yet in the October presidential election, and is now running for re-election in Miranda state against Elias Jaua, Chavez's former vice president.
Vice President Nicolas Maduro urged supporters on Sunday to vote for Chavez's allies, while opponents called his remarks a violation of electoral rules. Speaking at a news conference, Maduro implored voters: "Let's not fail Chavez." He addressed those who hadn't cast ballots yet, saying "let's not make a bad impression with our commander Chavez."
Opposition leader Ramon Guillermo Aveledo said his remarks violated a prohibition on campaigning on election day, and called for the National Electoral Council to take action. Vicente Diaz, a member of the council, called Maduro's comments inappropriate and he would take up the matter with the council.
Jorge Rodriguez, the campaign manager for the pro-Chavez camp, denied any wrongdoing by the vice president, saying he had simply been referring to "the love of the Venezuelan people toward Hugo Chavez."
The elections were seen as an important dry run for new presidential elections if cancer cuts short Chavez's presidency. Chavez is due to be sworn in for another six-year term on Jan. 10. But if his condition forces him to step down, Venezuela's constitution requires that new presidential elections be called promptly and held within 30 days.
Chavez said before undergoing the surgery that if he's unable to continue, Maduro should take his place and run for president. Alida Delgado, a lawyer, was waiting to vote outside a school in an affluent neighborhood of Miranda state. She said she favored Capriles because Chavez's government has left the country immersed in rampant crime and economic troubles. She said one of her sons moved away to Canada several years ago in search of work as a business manager.
As for Chavez, Delgado said: "I hope he recovers, but I think there's going to be change." "God willing, I think that soon we're going to have new elections," Delgado said, adding: "May the opposition win."
Chavez's political allies framed the election as a referendum on his legacy, urging people to dedicate the vote to the president. The government put up banners on lampposts reading "Now more than ever, with Chavez."
Jorge Arreaza, Chavez's son-in-law and the government's science and technology minister, said in a Sunday phone call from Havana broadcast on television that Chavez was continuing to recover and that there has been "a positive trend of stabilization."
"'El Comandante' has begun to communicate with us, to give instructions, to govern," Arreaza said, adding that Chavez was closely following the elections. Chavez's four children have been with him while he recovers from the surgery, his fourth operation related to his pelvic cancer since June 2011.
Ricardo Mendez, a bus driver who voted for Jaua, said he was optimistic but also noted that few people were voting. "It seems like people are more interested in getting ready for Christmas than anything else," he said.
Baker Luis Chacon, who also voted for Jaua, said he still thinks Chavez can beat cancer and isn't particularly concerned about what would happen if he doesn't. "If he gets worse, new elections will come to choose another," Chacon said, after voting in the working-class slum of Petare.
If the Chavistas make gains or even hold steady, the executive branch could strengthen its hold on the grass roots, as communal councils decide such questions as who gets a new roof, or which streets need repairs, distributing the funds directly. Chavez's opponents have objected to the government's campaign to develop such state-funded "communes" because they bypass the traditional authority of state and local elected officials.
Chacon said that while he supports Chavez, the local communal council has no presence where he lives and hasn't managed to fix broken lights and stairs that wind through the hillside slum. Voters in some areas of Caracas were awakened before dawn by fireworks and reveille blaring from speakers mounted on trucks.
But the closeness of the vote to Christmas and apparent apathy among many voters appeared to contribute to a low turnout. In the last presidential election, more than 80 percent of registered voters turned out, but gubernatorial elections tend to draw fewer people.
Some said a low turnout was a potential hazard both for Chavez's camp and the opposition. Political analyst Carlos Raul Hernandez said he thinks Chavez's illness could keep some voters away because he's developed "a style of messianic leadership" in which he stands out far above his political allies.
"There are a lot of people who are only interested in Chavez, not at all the governors," Hernandez said.
Associated Press writers Christopher Toothaker and Vivian Sequera contributed to this report.