Voters in some areas of Caracas were awakened before dawn by fireworks and reveille blaring from speakers mounted on trucks. But turnout in the initial hours of voting appeared to be much lower than the country's October presidential vote, when long lines snaked out of polling stations and Chavez won another six-year term.
The vote is the first time in Chavez's nearly 14-year-old presidency that he has been unable to actively campaign. He hasn't spoken publicly since undergoing cancer surgery on Tuesday in Cuba.
Governorships in all of the country's 23 states are being decided in the elections. Chavez's party currently controls all but eight of the states, and if it maintains its dominance the vote could help the president's allies deepen his socialist policies, including a drive fortifying grass-roots citizen councils that are directly funded by the central government.
For the opposition, the elections are apt to determine the fate of its leadership. The most pivotal race involves opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who gave Chavez his stiffest challenge yet in the October presidential election, and is now running for re-election in Miranda state against Elias Jaua, Chavez's former vice president.
The elections could also be an important dry run for new presidential elections if cancer cuts short Chavez's presidency.
Chavez is due to be sworn in for another term on Jan. 10. But if his condition forces him to step down, Venezuela's constitution requires that new presidential elections be called promptly and held within 30 days.
Chavez said before undergoing the surgery that if he's unable to continue, Vice President Nicolas Maduro should take his place and run for president.
Alida Delgado, a lawyer, was waiting to vote outside a school in an affluent neighborhood of Miranda state. She said she favored Capriles because Chavez's government has left the country immersed in rampant crime and economic troubles. She said one of her sons moved away to Canada several years ago in search of work as a business manager.
As for Chavez, Delgado said: “I hope he recovers, but I think there's going to be change.”
“God willing, I think that soon we're going to have new elections,” Delgado said, adding: “May the opposition win.”
Chavez's son-in-law, Jorge Arreaza, who is also the government's science and technology minister, said in a Saturday phone call from Havana broadcast on television that the president had called for supporters to turn out to vote.
Arreaza said Chavez is in full control of his mental faculties and has been talking with his children and getting daily visits from Fidel Castro while recovering slowly from the surgery, which was his fourth cancer-related operation since June 2011.
Chavez's political allies framed the election as a referendum on his legacy, urging people to dedicate the vote to Chavez. The government put up banners on lampposts reading “Now more than ever, with Chavez.”
Jesus Hernandez, a public school employee, said he would vote for Jaua out of support for Chavez. “We have a leader, and we have to follow that leader.”
If the Chavistas gain or even hold steady, the executive branch could strengthen its hold on the grass roots, as communal councils decide such questions as who gets a new roof, or which streets need repairs, distributing the funds directly. Chavez's opponents have objected to the government's campaign to develop such state-funded “communes” because they bypass the traditional authority of state and local elected officials.
The closeness of the vote to Christmas and apparent apathy among many voters suggested a low turnout. In the last presidential election, 81 percent of registered voters turned out, but gubernatorial elections tend to draw fewer people.
Some said a low turnout could be a hazard both for Chavez's camp and the opposition.
Political analyst Carlos Raul Hernandez said he thinks Chavez's illness could keep some voters away because he's developed “a style of messianic leadership” in which he stands out far above his political allies.
“There are a lot of people who are only interested in Chavez, not at all the governors,” Hernandez said.