Chavez has said the vote — held one year after he suffered his first electoral defeat — could decide “the future of the revolution, the future of socialism and also the future of Hugo Chavez”.
Early turnout was high as Venezuelans formed long lines to cast ballots for governors, mayors and other local officials.
After a decade in office, Chavez still enjoys widespread popularity and has maintained control of most local posts. But last year’s defeat of his attempt to abolish term limits has energised the opposition, which is riding a wave of complaints about rampant crime, corruption and inflation.
The vote could either hand Chavez another setback or help him lay the groundwork to extend his rule beyond 2013, when his six-year term ends.
Polls showed Chavez’s candidates leading in a majority of races, while the opposition was ahead or in tight races in several of the more populous states.
Aquiles Vera, a construction worker waiting to vote in a Caracas slum, said he supported Chavez’s candidates and believed the president’s ability to stay in office was at stake in the vote.
Vera said he fears a loss for pro-Chavez candidates would mean “all the president’s plans would collapse — like the missions (social programs), cheap food, medicines”.
But in the second-largest city of Maracaibo, Isabel Cepeda said she was fed up with corruption and trash-strewn streets, and planned to vote for opposition challenger Manuel Rosales for mayor.
“We want democracy to continue in our country, and it’s now held hostage,” Cepeda said. “If we stay on this path, we’re headed toward being a second Cuba.”