Venezuelans came out in force Sunday to vote in a key test for leftist President Hugo Chavez, as the opposition fought for a strong return to the National Assembly after boycotting the last elections.
Polling stations began closing at 6 pm (2230 GMT) in the vote for 165 lawmakers which was set to shake up a political scene in the oil-rich nation which Chavez has dominated for almost 12 years.
Tibisay Lucena, president of the electoral council, said the vote took place “in an atmosphere of calm and civic-mindedness” without major incidents, while some polling stations stayed open where lines remained.
Populist Chavez, who was welcomed at a hillside slum polling station by cheering, red-clad crowds, claimed turnout would reach 70 percent, after dominating the end of campaigning, two years before presidential polls.
The president sent a string of Twitter messages throughout the day, including a call for his supporters to “demolish” the opposition, which carried out its own campaigning on social networks.
Chavez wants his party to keep a strong grip on the legislature to aid his “socialist revolution,” a government marked by nationalizations, social projects and a centralizing of power.
A determined opposition has put aside differences to unite in the umbrella Table for Democratic Unity (MUD) to fight for its first seats since its 2005 boycott.
Several small leftist parties, which defected from Chavez’s party to offer the only congressional opposition, are now standing alone.
They sought to tap into public concern over a country with one of the world’s highest murder rates and economic woes that include record inflation.
“It’s the moment to raise our voices for the Venezuela we love,” said Maria Corina Machado, an independent opposition candidate.
“I’m worried they’ll cancel social programs,” said 49-year-old Osiris Marcan, after voting in a traditional Chavez stronghold in western Caracas.
Crowds gathered early in the middle class opposition area of Chacao, where residents said Venezuela needed more political diversity, and a change from Chavez.
“I voted for my country,” said shopkeeper Alba Correa, 51. “We want a counterweight. That’s our big hope.”
Polls suggest the vote could be tight, probably giving a slight lead to the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), which is likely to benefit from recent changes to voting districts.
Under the new system, they could win two thirds of seats with just over half of the vote, which could lead both sides to claim victories.
In more than a decade of rule, Chavez has nationalized public utilities, key industries and media and launched health clinics and subsidized food programs for the poor.
He has also increased pressure on opposition groups and dissidents.
The ex-paratrooper has lost only one of 13 votes organized by his government.
Some 250,000 security forces are policing the polls, in which more than 17 million people are eligible to take part.
Chavez, 56, is strongly influenced by Communist Cuba and often slams US policy, though the United States remains the main buyer of Venezuelan oil.