Venezuela's Chavez predicts 'year of tests'

By FABIOLA SANCHEZ | January 13, 2012 | 3:11 PM EST

Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez waves to supporters as he arrives to the National Assembly for his annual state of the union address in Caracas, Venezuela, Friday, Jan. 13, 2012. After thirteen years in the presidency, Chavez is running for a third term in office next October.(AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said Friday that he expects a "year of tests" as he runs for re-election, and he pledged to hand over the presidency if he loses.

Chavez has been in office for 13 years and is seeking another six-year term in the October vote.

In his annual message to the National Assembly, Chavez told opposition lawmakers that if he loses, he "would be the first in recognizing it."

Recent polls show that Chavez's popularity has been above 50 percent.

Opponents criticize Chavez's handling of problems such as rampant violent crime and 27.6 percent inflation. The country's opposition coalition said in a statement that Chavez has been "neglecting people's problems due to being busy trying to remain in power."

Chavez defended government policies, including his recent decision to withdraw billions of dollars in its gold reserves from U.S. and European banks and bring it back to the Central Bank in Caracas. Holding up a bar of gold, he criticized prior governments, saying: "They had taken our gold away."

The leftist president repeated his criticisms of the United States, calling its government "a threat for the world."

He also defended Iran and its nuclear program, reiterating his view that U.S. concerns about Iran trying to build atomic weapons are baseless.

Before his speech, hundreds of supporters wearing red shirts gathered outside the National Assembly and cheered, some of them chanting Chavez's name.