Government and opposition measured their strength on the streets of the Venezuelan capital Wednesday, as tens of thousands marched in rival demonstrations. Although the two groups were only a couple of blocks apart, the events passed off peacefully.

January 23 marks the anniversary of the overthrow, in 1958, of Venezuela's last military dictator, General Marcos Perez Jimenez. It is not a date dear to the heart of President Hugo Chavez, himself a former military man who once staged a failed coup. In his version of history it led to a sham democracy which looted the country for the next 40 years, until his election in 1998.

This year, however, when opposition forces ranging from political parties and business organisations to labor unions and civic groups announced a joint demonstration, the president changed his mind.

Determined not to allow the opposition to march to the parliament building, government supporters mounted a counter-demonstration, forcing their opponents several times to change their route to avoid violent clashes. Nonetheless, the opposition claimed success. Their march, which different sources put at between 70,000 and 100,000 strong, was the biggest in many years.

The president claimed his supporters outnumbered the opposition 3-to-1, but most independent observers suggested the reverse was the case.

In a speech, President Chavez said what he calls his 'revolution' was entering a new phase, in which the social and economic structure of the country would be profoundly changed. The growing opposition, however, complains that the president is attempting to push through his political and social agenda without consultation.

Recent opinion polls have shown that the president's approval rating, once over 30 per cent, is now down to around 30 per cent. Many of those on the opposition march called for the president to resign immediately.

Laughing off the demand, the president insisted he would be in power until 2013.