CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuelans elect mayors and governors today in a key test of President Hugo Chavez's political strength.
An overwhelming victory by Chavez's candidates would prompt him to continue pulling Venezuela to the left, analysts said. It would also embolden him to seek public approval early next year to overturn term limits that currently keep him from running for president again in 2012.
But strong advances by opposition candidates would constrain Chavez's ambitions to construct a socialist state at home and to extend his antiglobalization and anti-American influence throughout Latin America.
"If I am to continue governing Venezuela, it will depend on what happens," Chavez said last week and then referred to himself in the third person: "Make no mistake, Chavez's political destiny is in play here."
Opposition parties won only two of the 23 governor's races in 2004. Analysts expect them to win from four to 10 races this time.
If Chavez's candidates in the United Socialist Party of Venezuela win a majority of the races, he undoubtedly would declare victory. The opposition parties also hope they can declare a triumph by pointing to their advances, in an effort to stifle his ambitions.
"If Chavez doesn't win enough governors' races, he won't be able to confidently seek a referendum for re-election, which is what he really wants," said Herbert Koeneke, a political science professor at Simon Bolivar University in Caracas who is a Chavez critic.
Pollster Oscar Schemel said that Chavez is betting that his personal approval rating — which ranges from 47 percent to 57 percent — will carry his candidates to victory despite the highest inflation rate in Latin America, a homicide rate that has doubled under Chavez, and frequent food shortages at supermarkets.
Opposition officials say Chavez has stacked the deck by having his appointed officials bar several popular opposition candidates from running because of alleged corruption.