16 August 2004
The Venezuelan President, Hugo Chavez, looked to be losing his grip on power last night as exit polls showed him to be trailing the opposition by almost a million votes.
The figures were early indications that, for the first time in the country's history, the President may have his term in office cut short by a referendum.
The mid-morning results showed that the opposition, already boasting an enormous 1,758,000 votes to Chavez's 798,000, is well on its way to reaching the target of 3.76 million votes it needs to oust the authoritarian, left-wing President. Turn-out for the referendum was high, with millions of Venezuelans queuing from the early hours at polling stations all over the oil-rich country to decide the political fate of the firebrand Mr Chavez.
The Venezuelan people are tensely awaiting a close-run and disputed result. In the capital, Caracas, government vans equipped with speakers drove through the poor residential districts in the east of the city at 5am, playing a military wake-up call before piping out popular pro-Chavez songs to voters, some of whom had in any case been up all night letting off fireworks, anticipating victory.
"Our commandante has already won," said Eric Caldera, a student queuing to vote against Mr Chavez's recall. "The rich people and TV stations are the only ones who say the opposition is going to win. They want to regain the power and privilege they had before, and loot the country. You can count the rich people on your hand, the poor you can't. They are too many. And they are with Chavez."
A clamorous cluster of opposition voters in Parroquia El Recreo voting station, central Caracas, rejected the pro-Chavez voters' arguments against them. "If Chavez wins we will paint the walls with 'No Future'. As no one will have a future, not us nor our children. We don't want a Cuba here," added Elsie Billar, 54, an accountant.
If, as looked likely last night, Mr Chavez loses, Vice-President Jose Rangel will take over until general elections are held in a month's time.
© 2004 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd