Venezuelans are voting in a parliamentary election which is a key test for Hugo Chavez ahead of a presidential ballot in two years’ time.
A 3am bugle call accompanying fireworks roused people to cast their ballots, in a tradition begun by the president himself.
The charismatic socialist leader is expected to keep his parliamentary majority but the opposition is set to make big gains, having boycotted the last election five years ago.
A torrent of Twitter messages was sent in the president’s name before polls opened, urging his supporters to get out and vote.
His popularity is down on previous years, with an approval rating of between 40 and 50 percent, but it’s still thought to be enough to win.
The challenge for the opposition is to take more than a third of the 165 seats up for grabs. That would leave Chavez needing support from his enemies to make major changes to laws or appointments to key institutions.
The Venezuelan leader is still hailed by his supporters as a champion of the poor, but his critics denounce him as a boorish dictator.
As well as the president’s personality, the campaign has focused on Venezuela’s soaring crime figures and economic problems.
The recession is into its second year and although the inflation rate has slowed up, it remains one of the highest in the world, topping 30% earlier this year.