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Undecided Voters Likely Key to Venezuelan Legislative Election

Venezuela holds legislative elections on Sunday, which are expected to hinge on a growing number of undecided or independent voters. Some voters refuse to identify with either the government or opposition parties because of the harsh war of words between the two.

Venezuelans will cast ballots Sunday to choose all 165 members of the nation's National Assembly, which is now controlled by the rulling Socialist party of President Hugo Chavez.

Mr. Chavez has campaigned heavily for Socialist candidates throughout the country in an effort to ensure his party maintains a two-thirds majority needed to pass major legislation. In coming months, he is expected to introduce bills that would further empower community government bodies, and enable the central government to nationalize small and medium-sized businesses.

Opposition groups now hold a small fraction of seats in the Assembly, after boycotting the 2005 vote. They are hoping to seize at least a third of seats to block measures they fear will advance the president's push toward Socialism.

Mr. Chavez is not on Sunday's ballot, but the battle between his Socialist party and the opposition threatens to overshadow the individual races for National Assembly seats. Jewelry maker Hector Rodriguez says strong party supporters will vote Sunday the same way they have voted in previous elections.

He says many people are voting for their party and not necessarily for a specific candidate, because the candidates are well-known within the parties.

However, more and more Venezuelans are refusing to identify with the government or the opposition, and prefer to see themselves as independent. Political analysts call them "ni-ni" voters, which in Spanish translates as supporting neither one party or the other. And experts say they could sway the final election results.

Office worker Elizabeth Duran is turned off by the harsh tone of political debate, and she says both parties are to blame. She says she would like to see the opposition seize 50 percent of the assembly. Duran says the Socialist and opposition parties should split the assembly 50-50, just to end the political fights, which she says are damaging the country.

Iredis Salazar, a clothing saleswoman in downtown Caracas, agrees the opposition should have more representation in the assembly, even though she would not vote for an opposition candidate. She says she remains a staunch supporter of President Chavez because of his efforts to combat poverty over the past 12 years. Salazar says both parties need to be represented in the assembly, so that multiple points-of-view can be heard. She asks what good is it to give all the power to one side.

Another reason for the rise in independent voters is growing concerns about violence and economic troubles, such as high inflation and food shortages. Some voters say both the government and opposition have failed to do anything to resolve those problems.

Victor Hidrogo, a worker with the Caracas electricity cooperative, says he has not heard any new ideas from the candidates in Sunday's vote. Hidrogo says candidates are making the same promises as previous elections. But, he says the people will have to wait to see if any of those promises actually come true.

Political analysts say they have struggled to make projections about the outcome of Sunday's vote, in part because independent voters have a history of not casting ballots. They say the final result may depend on how many voters actually turn out.

Hector Rodriguez, the jewelry maker, says many of his co-workers have never voted before but plan to do so this time. He says there has been so much campaigning and news coverage, so they plan on voting. In the end, he says they may end up staying home, but they certainly want to take part.

Venezuelan election officials say they plan to release vote results a few hours after polls close on Sunday.