Venezuela OKs redistricting opposed by Chavez foes


CARACAS, Venezuela – Venezuelan lawmakers on Friday approved an election law to redraw voting districts, a step that President Hugo Chavez's opponents say will give his party a big advantage in next year's congressional vote.

Ruling party lawmaker Iroshima Bravo downplayed the opposition's concerns that voting district boundaries could be redrawn to favor the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, or PSUV.

"If they have the support of the people, they have nothing to fear," she said, adding that the legislation was needed because populations have increased or decreased in many municipalities, and voting districts should reflect these changes.

The bill easily passed the National Assembly, which is dominated by Chavez allies.

The law authorizes the National Election Council to redraw the boundaries ahead of the election. Four of the council's five members are widely perceived as pro-Chavez.

Tomas Sanchez, one of a dozen lawmakers who voted 'no' on the measure, said he expects the body to "change the district lines, mixing up places where the opposition is stronger with places where the PSUV usually wins, and thereby weaken the opposition."

The law also changes Venezuela's proportional representation system in a way that will likely hurt smaller parties.

Under the existing system, 60 percent of lawmakers are elected in single-seat districts while the remaining 40 percent are elected from a list of candidates chosen by the party.

Currently, if 10 lawmakers are to be elected in a state, and one party receives 60 percent of the vote, another 30 percent and a third 10 percent, then the party that received 60 percent would have six lawmakers elected to the assembly, the runner-up would have three and the minority party would have one.

Under the complex new rules, seats that previously would have been assigned to minority parties will now be handed over to the top finishers — leaving smaller political groups with little or no representation.

Critics argue the law will hurt the coalition of small opposition parties that will challenge Chavez in next year's congressional elections.

Chavez foes expect to make a strong showing after the opposition made significant gains in November's gubernatorial and mayoral elections, winning key posts in Caracas and Maracaibo, the country's second-largest city.

The Venezuelan elections watchdog group Sumate called the law unconstitutional, saying it violates the proportional-representation system outlined in the charter.

"Sumate reminds legislators that they represent the country — not a political tendency," the group said in a statement.

Pro-Chavez parties, led by the PSUV, currently hold an unbeatable majority within the 167-seat assembly, largely because major opposition parties boycotted the last congressional vote.

If opposition parties capture more than 33 percent of seats next year, they could block some laws requiring a two-thirds majority vote.