CARACAS, Venezuela - Venezuelans are choosing governors and state lawmakers on Sunday in elections that have become a key test of whether President Hugo Chavez's movement can endure if the socialist leader leaves the political stage.
Voters in some areas of Caracas were awakened before dawn by fireworks and reveille blaring from speakers mounted on trucks. But turnout in the initial hours of voting appeared to be much lower than the country's October presidential vote, when long lines snaked out of polling stations and Chavez won another six-year term.
The vote is the first time in Chavez's nearly 14-year-old presidency that he has been unable to actively campaign. He has not spoken publicly since undergoing cancer surgery on Tuesday in Cuba.
Governorships in the country's 23 states are being decided in the elections. Chavez's party controls all but eight of the states, and if it maintains its dominance the vote could help the president's allies deepen his socialist policies, including a drive to fortify grass-roots citizen councils that are directly funded by the central government.
For the opposition, the elections are apt to determine the fate of its leadership. The most pivotal race involves opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who gave Chavez his stiffest challenge yet in the October presidential election, and is now running for re-election in Miranda state against Elias Jaua, Chavez's former vice president.
The elections could also be an important dry run for new presidential elections if cancer cuts short Chavez's presidency.
Chavez is due to be sworn in for another term on Jan. 10. But if his condition forces him to step down, Venezuela's constitution requires that new presidential elections be called promptly and held within 30 days.
Chavez said before undergoing the surgery that if he cannot continue, Vice President Nicolas Maduro should take his place and run for president. Chavez's son-in-law, Jorge Arreaza, the government's science and technology minister, said in a Saturday phone call from Havana broadcast on television that the president had called for supporters to turn out to vote.