Venezuela closed its border with Colombia for 24 hours around Sunday's elecion [GALLO/GETTY]

Venezuelans vote in a parliamentary election on Sunday where Hugo Chavez, the president, is expected to keep control of the National Assembly in a poll that will test his support ahead of a new presidential ballot in 2012.

The main issue is whether the opposition can stop Chavez from retaining at least a two-thirds majority and thus limit his ability to pass major legislation. In this question and answer session, we examine some of the key issues surrounding the election.

How important is this vote?
    
Chavez has told supporters the vote is crucial to prevent opponents derailing his self-styled "revolution," now in its 12th year. With typical drama, he has declared the campaign "Operation Demolition." Analysts see it as a test of his popularity ahead of a 2012 presidential vote. Although he is not standing for parliament, Chavez dominates the campaign, his face adorning huge posters, his name on every candidate's lips.

The vote is guaranteed to give the opposition at least some seats after they boycotted the last National Assembly election in 2005. That decision gave Chavez carte blanche in parliament, and is now widely regretted among opposition parties. Having united into an umbrella movement, the opposition's most realistic goal is to slash Chavez's majority to below two-thirds in the 165-seat assembly.

Without a two-thirds majority, Chavez would need to court opposition support for major laws or to make appointments to important institutions. High on his legislative agenda are more local government shake-ups to embed socialist principles and set up new funding methods. The food and banking sectors could be targeted for further nationalisations too.

In the past, Chavez has used "fast-track" decree powers to bypass parliament and pass controversial laws such as those letting him nationalise parts of the oil sector or increase the number of Supreme Court magistrates. To get those powers again, he would need support of three-fifths, or 99, of the legislators. Critics charge that were the opposition to win an outright majority - which polls show as unlikely - Chavez would be tempted to dissolve the assembly altogether to get his way. Crucially, though, the new parliamentarians elected on Sunday will only take up their posts on January 5, meaning that whatever happens, Chavez would have a compliant assembly until then.

What are the possible outcomes?   

While both Chavez and the opposition say they have the majority of Venezuela's 27 million people behind them, polls show a deeply divided nation with about a third of voters in the so-called "neither-nor" camp: not supporting either the government or the opposition. Chavez's approval rating was above 50 per cent at the last national vote in 2009, but is now in the 40s. That makes for a tight electoral scenario.

Obviously Chavez's ruling Socialist Party will lose seats compared to 2005, but analysts are divided on whether that will take the government below the two-thirds level. If it does not, parliament will likely remain a rubber stamp for his policies.

Even if the opposition were to win a majority of votes, they would not necessarily win the majority in parliament due to changes in the electoral system that favour Chavez's Socialist Party. A redrawing of electoral districts last year gave more weight to rural areas where Chavez's support is strongest.

What are the main issues?

Chavez himself: As in a dozen or so other elections since he came to power in 1999, the 56-year-old former soldier is again at the centre of all debate. Though the strong support of past years is waning, Chavez remains loved among the poor for his populist style and social policies. Foes, however, regard him as a dictator, and believe voters are becoming weary of him.

Crime: The single biggest problem on most Venezuelans' minds is crime. In one of the world's most violent countries outside a war zone, between 13,000 and 16,000 people were murdered last year, according to leaked police numbers and a non-governmental watchdog. The government was furious over a New York Times article that suggested Venezuela is now more dangerous than Iraq, saying foreign media and private groups are conspiring to blacken Chavez's image ahead of the vote. A new national police force has been set up, but remains at a fledgling stage without a big impact nationally yet.

Economy: Venezuela has been in recession since early 2009, inflation is among the world's highest, and businesses are short of foreign currency. So, from wealthy businessmen to Venezuelans queuing for buses, it is common to hear grumbling. However, the second-quarter GDP contraction of 1.9 per cent was the lowest for a year, indicating the recession is slowing. The government expects positive growth in the fourth quarter and for 2011.

Services: Chavez's popularity seems to have taken a hit from water and power shortages since the end of last year, with many asking how such problems could happen in a resource-rich nation like Venezuela. The government said a drought and past economic growth had put pressure on the systems. Either way, the problems have eased in recent months, to Chavez's relief. The rains arrived, water levels in the main Guri reservoir - where most of Venezuela's electricity is generated - are back up to high levels, and moaning by ordinary Venezuelans has subsided.

Relations with Colombia: Chavez's recent diplomatic row with Colombia - he cut relations, then restored them when President Juan Manuel Santos took power - made headlines internationally but many Venezuelans simply raised an eyebrow at the latest episode in what has become a political soap opera with their Andean neighbour.

Chavez views Colombia as a US pawn, while Bogota sees him as a tacit supporter of Colombia's left-wing rebels. But the issue is unlikely to sway many voters on Sunday. The border between the two countries has been closed as a security measure for the election.

Source: Agencies