The socialist system built by Hugo Chavez faced its gravest electoral test Sunday as Venezuelans cast ballots in what seems to have become a tightening race for control of the national legislature.
CARACAS, Venezuela – The voting booths set up at the Manuel Ramos Civic Center, in eastern Caracas, opened to its 2,566 assigned voters with a nearly two-hour delay on Sunday. At 7:43 a.m., when military personnel in charge of the polling station came out and announced the voting process could finally start, the 100-plus people waiting in line started clapping in celebration.
But not everything went smoothly after that.
Of the five booths installed at the voting center, one operated slowly and another one didn't work at all due to technical difficulties – it was eventually up and running around 9:00 a.m.
According to media reports and social media, this situation repeated early Sunday morning throughout Venezuela, yet voters stayed in line despite the long wait. They were determined to cast their vote in this crucial legislative election which may take away some – or a lot – of the power currently held by the ruling party in the National Assembly.
A small opposition majority in the new 167-seat National Assembly could create only minor inconveniences for President Nicolas Maduro, such as denying him a budget for foreign travel and having committees scrutinize the executive's record. Still, even a small victory would provide an important lift to the frequently outmaneuvered opposition.
Reining in President Maduro and his socialist party would require new laws needing at least a three-fifths majority, or 101 seats.
It's also possible the Democratic Unity opposition coalition could win the nationwide popular vote by a large margin but fail to win even a majority in the legislature because of the underrepresentation of Venezuela's urban areas, where frustration with the government runs highest.
One of the people in line at the Manuel Ramos Civic Center was Gustavo Torres, a former engineer with the American oil company Schlumberger. He now lives 60 percent of his time in Texas, but has never fully detached from his native country.
"I always come here to vote because I think it's safer and it lets me participate in local elections like this one," Torres told Fox News Latino.
Venezuela doesn't allow absentee voting for congressional elections, so generally opposition-leaning expats must fly back if they want to participate. More than a 100,000 Venezuelans living overseas are registered to vote.
While the morning unfolded peacefully at Manuel Ramos Civic Center, other polling stations saw some violence. In a polling station located in western Caracas, opposition candidates Jorge Millan and Tomas Guanipa were attacked, allegedly by four government supporters who threw stones and bottles at them. They were not hurt, but a stone hit a reporter from El Nacional, a leading newspaper, in the head.
"I got news that they threw stones and bottles to the candidates and those close to them,” said Eduardo Ponte, head of El Nacional’s website, to Fox News Latino. “The military personnel stationed there did nothing [to stop it]."
Claims of irregularities surfaced in many of the over 1,000 new polling stations created for this election, mostly related to votes cast in blank because voters were not adequately informed of the voting procedure.
According to the Associated Press, outside the Caracas school where Maduro was expected to vote, a government supporter was handing out campaign literature to the long line of voters -- a clear violation of the electoral law. Red-shirted government backers turned out in full force, the AP also reported, and a salsa band was deployed to liven up the masses.
In the state of Carabobo, opposition members said that groups of Chavistas took over some of the polling stations there and forced their appointed observers out of the facilities. They said the situation was worst in the 5th district, where three congress members are up for election.
All across the country, journalists and private citizens reported on social media, government supporters were seen roaming the streets near polling stations urging people to vote.
The ruling party, PSUV, set up kiosks near many of the polling stations located in the working class areas and kept a count of how many supporters had voted. They also helped those who needed a lift to their voting center.
“We have five motorcycles and five cars to help us move votes of those supporters that have problems mobilizing,” Elsy Pacheco, a government supporter told FNL in Petare, a popular segment in eastern Caracas.
She had a list with the names of supporters expected to vote in the Leonardo Infante voting center, some 100 yards away, and she kept track all the people going in and out.
The coordinator for that voting center, Ana Briceno, said there were no logistic issues to report.
“The only problem we have had is with blank votes. Around 28 people didn’t vote correctly [by noon],” she told FNL.
Soraya Jamaloodin said her mother was one of those voters.
“She marked the option she wanted to vote for, but the machine didn’t register it and she voted without marking it again, so it was blank,” she said. “They are not [effectively] explaining people how to vote,” she complained.
More than 163,000 police and troops were deployed around the country ahead of Sunday's vote, but many Venezuelans still fear postelection riots -- in recent days thousands lined up to take cash from ATMs and stockpiled food in anticipation of possible violence.
Maduro has promised to personally take to the streets if his party loses, while the opposition said it would defend the people's votes. Opposition leaders said that if their coalition failed to win, it would mean the state cheated.
With reporting by the Associated Press.
Franz von Bergen is a freelancer reporter living in Caracas.