Venezuela's ruling party holds vote to pick congressional candidates

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — President Hugo Chavez's ruling party rallied hundreds of thousands of members to a congressional election primary vote Sunday — a key step in preventing infighting as they battle a resurgent and united opposition.

Venezuela's socialist president said roughly 2 million primary voters picked among more than 3,000 candidates seeking to represent the party in September in congressional voting he warns could determine the fate of his "Bolivarian Revolution."

Major opposition parties boycotted the last election, arguing the electronic voting system was susceptible to fraud, which allowed Chavez allies to win all the seats in Venezuela's single-house assembly. Since then, the pro-Chavez assembly has granted him the authority to approve special legislation by decree while stripping power from elected officials sided with the opposition.

But this time around the opposition is fielding a united slate of candidates chosen at a primary last week. They hope to capitalize on increasing frustration with Chavez over high crime and 26 percent inflation to win enough seats to control Chavez's legislative offensive.

Speaking at a polling station in Caracas' poverty-stricken 23 de Enero neighborhood, traditionally a bastion of support for Chavez, Venezuela's president congratulated all the candidates.

"We are trying to pick the best candidates to win a majority in the National Assembly," he said.

In the past, disillusioned members of Chavez's party who weren't chosen as candidates broke ranks to run as independents or joined other pro-government parties that accepted them as candidates.

Two years ago Chavez created the Unified Socialist Party of Venezuela and he urged other pro-government parties to disband and join his new party. But two left-leaning parties — the Communist Party of Venezuela and Fatherland For All — declined to join it, preferring to maintain their autonomy.

Nowadays, they complain of being sidelined.

The leaders of the Communist party and Fatherland For All say they hope to reach agreements with Chavez allies on consensual candidacies in several voting districts, but they've pledged to field their own aspirants if those efforts fail.

Chavez vowed that his allies would win a majority to maintain control of the assembly.

"We are going to knock them out," he said.

Political analyst John Magdaleno said Sunday's vote could help the ruling party counter criticism that it doesn't practice the democratic principles it preaches. Chavez holds great sway over its leadership and has hand-picked candidates in the past.

The party has struggled with "the problem of candidates' legitimacy because President Chavez has an excessive influence in decisions regarding nominees," Magdaleno said.

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Associated Press Writer Sharelly De Santis contributed to this report.

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