Venezuelans vote on Sunday in the toughest election President Hugo Chavez has faced in almost 14 years in power after fresh-faced rival Henrique Capriles electrified the country’s opposition.
Chavez, 58, retains a loyal following among the country’s poor, who have propelled him to easy victories in past elections, but 40-year-old Capriles has narrowed the gap in opinion polls after an energetic door-to-door national campaign.
Weakened by a bout with cancer, the president stepped up his campaign this week, even dancing in the rain at a Caracas rally on Thursday as he pleaded for another six-year term to seal his oil-funded socialist revolution.
Chavez, a fierce US critic, is a highly polarising figure who survived a coup in 2002 and became popular with the long-neglected poor for using the country’s vast oil wealth to fund health and education programs.
Mentored by Cuba’s Fidel Castro, Chavez has become the leading voice of Latin America’s left, railing against the US “empire” while befriending Iran and Syria. He also has used petro-dollars and cut-rate oil deals to build a network of diplomatic allies around the region.
Facing his biggest election challenge, Chavez has admitted making mistakes, vowing to “become a better president” if re-elected.
The business-friendly, centre-left Capriles has hammered Chavez over the country’s regular power outages, food shortages and runaway murder rate, which has risen to 50 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants.
The telegenic former Miranda state governor has vowed to unite the country, accusing Chavez of being “sick with power” and dividing the nation.
Capriles, who describes himself as David fighting Goliath, was picked by the opposition in an unprecedented primary election in February.
Chavez held a 10-point lead in the latest opinion poll, but Capriles has attracted huge crowds at rallies while other surveys have put them in a statistical dead heat.
Around 19 million voters are called to the polls. Some 140,000 troops have been deployed to prevent violence while alcohol sales are banned until Monday.
Election experts say the electronic voting system is fraud-proof, though Chavez charges that the “far right” plans to not recognise his victory if he wins.
While the opposition is better organised than in the past, Chavez counts on a well-oiled campaign operation, with supporters waking up voters with bugles.
Polls open at 6am (6pm Hong Kong time) and close at 6pm, but people will be allowed to vote as long as there are lines.