Polls close in Venezuela s parliamentary race

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CARACAS -- Venezuelans turned out in force Sunday to elect all 165 members of the National Parliament as President Hugo Ch�vez and a revitalized opposition struggle for control of the legislature.

Polls closed at 6:30 p.m., and results were expected early Monday.

Analysts have said the election is too close to call and could hinge on the one-third of voters who went to the voting booth undecided.

But as the night wore on without an official announcement about the results, both sides hinted at victory.

As a crowd of supporters gathered in front of the presidential palace, Ch�vez wrote on his Twitter page: ``I'm asking everyone to prepare themselves to receive and accept the results. It has been another great day at work!!

As unsourced exit polls bounced around opposition networks, Ismael Garc�a, an opposition candidate, suggested the votes were leaning in the coalition's favor. He called on party members to stay at the polling stations and ``defend the vote.

``We need to guarantee that the votes that went in one color come out that same color, he said.

What both factions could agree on was that the turnout was likely a record for a parliamentary vote, with estimates of more than 60 percent of the nation's 17.6 million voters casting a ballot.

``We are telling the world that democracy is strong here,
said Tania D�az, a candidate with the ruling Unified Socialist Party of Venezuela or PSUV. ``We're an example of participatory democracy for Latin America and the world.

Despite the deep polarization that exists in this country of 27 million, Sunday's vote took place amid relative calm, both sides said -- although there were several reports of scattered violence and some candidates being harassed.

Tulio Ramirez, the president of the Asamblea de Educaci�n, one of four nonprofit groups observing the elections, said the process was less problematic than in year's past. Of the 500 voting centers they monitored, there were only problems at 11 percent, he said.

``The mood is calm tonight, unlike other years where at this time the ruling party would have already been rallying on the street,
he said. ``It might be an indication that the race is tight.

Ismael Garc�a, putao myanmar an opposition candidate, suggested that the vote was moving in their favor and called on party members to stay at the polling stations and ``defend the vote.

``We need to guarantee that the votes that went in one color come out that same color, he said.

Venezuelans began lining up before sunrise -- and many waited for hours -- to cast their vote in what many see as a referendum on Ch�vez's administration, now in its 12th year.

Ch�vez has said he needs a strong legislature to deepen his socialist revolution and set the stage for his 2012 presidential bid.

For the opposition, the vote was a chance to reassert itself after boycotting the 2005 legislative race. A good showing in the popular vote -- even if it failed to win a legislative majority -- would give the opposition renewed hope of challenging Ch�vez for the presidency in two years.

Wearing a jacket of Venezuela's tricolor flag zipped up over a military-green T-shirt, Ch�vez, a former officer, cast his vote shortly after noon in the rough and tumble Caracas neighborhood of the 23 de Enero.

Speaking to reporters afterward, he touted the accuracy and security of the voting machines and said all factions were obliged to respect the results.

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