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Record turnout for Chavez vote


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Venezuelans are turning out to vote on whether to oust President Hugo Chavez.

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CARACAS, Venezuela (CNN) -- Millions have turned out to weigh in on Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's rule -- prompting voting hours to be extended twice.

In the long-awaited referendum, voters turned out in record numbers on Sunday to decide whether Chavez should complete the remaining two years of his six-year term, or be recalled.

Voting was first extended from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. ET (0000 GMT), but with thousands of people lined up to cast ballots on whether to keep Chavez in office, officials extended balloting until midnight.

Chavez, a former army officer, was elected president in 1998 with overwhelming support of the country's poor, but many people in the middle and upper classes call him a budding tyrant.

They accused him of steering Venezuela toward communism and of riding roughshod over the nation's democratic institutions.

The country has been wracked by anti-Chavez demonstrations for more than a year, and opponents managed to collect enough signatures to force a recall vote in June.

For Chavez to be recalled, at least 3.76 million Venezuelans must vote to remove him -- the number of votes the former paratrooper won in 2000, when he was re-elected to a six-year term.

Analysts have said the opposition faces an uphill battle with estimates showing that only 4 to 5 million of the nation's 25 million people are vehemently anti-Chavez. Opponents collected 2.4 million signatures to force the recall vote.

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, whose Carter Center is among international groups monitoring the referendum, called it "the largest turnout I have ever seen."

"Thousands of people in line are waiting patiently and without any disturbance, and the voting that we have observed so far is going very well," he said.

Some voters waited as long as 10 hours before being able to cast a ballot, and independent observers said the outcome was too close to call.

One woman was killed and 12 people wounded by a man in a shooting at a Caracas polling place, the city's fire chief told CNN. He described the man as "deranged," and said there was no other reports of violence.

Chavez cast his own vote early in the day and repeated his promise to respect the outcome, even if that means he must step down.

'Desperate measures'

Larry Birns, director of a Washington-based think-tank called the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, said Chavez's support is centered among the 18 million to 19 million Venezuelans who are poor.

Even if Chavez loses, he could probably run again within 30 days in the next election, Birns said.

Venezuela's Supreme Court, which Chavez recently expanded, will likely rule that he is eligible to be a candidate again, he said.

Chavez, who led a 1992 coup attempt before being elected president, has used the recent rise in oil prices to offer a welter of new social services to the majority poor in the nation, which is the world's fifth-largest exporter of oil.

Those services include education, health care and subsidized food.

He was ousted in a 2002 coup that his supporters blamed on the United States -- an allegation Washington denies -- but he returned to power within days when the opposition collapsed.

If he were to lose, Chavez would likely follow through on his pledge to step aside, Birns said.

"He has proven to be a constitutionalist. He obeys the law," Birns said.

But Birns was not as sanguine about what would happen if the opposition -- which has staged a series of strikes, some of them illegal -- were to lose.

"Their explanation is the desperateness of the situation requires desperate measures. Of course, Chavez could say the same thing."

In the working-class neighborhood of La Candelaria, lines of voters still snaked around buildings late in the afternoon. One woman drove by the crowds, using a bullhorn to exhort them to vote for Chavez -- a campaign tactic forbidden by the Electoral Council.

In addition to marking the thumbs of voters with indelible ink to thwart attempts at voting more than once, voters' thumbprints were fed into a computer. And, just in case a recall is needed, electronic voting machines issued paper receipts.

Voters on both sides of the question appeared enthusiastic.

"We want to vote, we want to vote," chanted one group. Another woman said, "We're exercising democracy."

CNN Correspondent Lucia Newman contributed to this report.


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