Venezuela polls open to decide Chavez successor

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 April, 2013, 2:52pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 April, 2013, 7:07pm

Venezuelans headed to the polls on Sunday to elect Hugo Chavez’s successor, with his political heir, Nicolas Maduro, hoping to continue his socialist revolution and rival Henrique Capriles vowing change in the divided nation.

You know that comandante Chavez gave me a difficult job and I accepted it like a son. I feel at peace
Nicolas Maduro

One month after Chavez died, supporters of acting President Maduro played military-style bugles to wake up people before dawn and later voters stood in lines, from the capital’s hillside slums to its wealthier districts.

Riding a wave of sympathy over his mentor’s death, led opinion polls as he promised to continue the oil-funded policies that cut poverty from 50 to 29 per cent through popular health, education and food programmes.

But Capriles hopes that discontent over the nation’s soaring murder rate, chronic food shortages, high inflation and regular power outages will give him an upset victory after 14 years under Chavez.

Chavez named Maduro – a former bus driver and union activist who rose to foreign minister and vice president – as his political heir in December before undergoing a final round of cancer surgery. He died on March 5 aged 58.

“We will break turnout records in our mobilised democracy,” Maduro wrote on Twitter.

Late on Saturday, Maduro presided over a ceremony in the old military barracks where Chavez was laid to rest to commemorate the late leader’s return to power after a his brief ouster in a coup on April 11-13, 2002.

“You know that comandante Chavez gave me a difficult job and I accepted it like a son. I feel at peace,” Maduro, 50, told members of a civilian militia formed by Chavez after the coup. “I will be loyal to him until the last moment.”

Capriles accused the government of “abusing power, abusing state resources” by staging televised events up until the eve of the election even though official campaigning ended on Thursday.

“Let’s go vote! Hope, faith and courage,” Capriles wrote on Twitter.

During the campaign, Capriles avoid criticising Chavez and pledged to maintain his social “missions”. He lost to Chavez by 11 points in the October 7 presidential election – the opposition’s best score against him.

“I’m not the opposition, I’m the solution,” said the 40-year-old Miranda state governor, who represents the youthful face of the once fractured opposition.

But he blamed the government for the nation’s economic woes and vowed to cut the “gift” to Cuba – a deal in which Caracas ships 100,000 barrels of oil per day while Havana sends doctors and other experts to Venezuela.

Maduro and Capriles engaged in an acrimonious campaign marked by insults, government allegations of assassination plots against the acting leader and the transformation of Chavez into a saintly figure.

Maduro called his rival a “little bourgeois” while Capriles derided the tall, broad-shouldered acting president as a “bull-chicken”.

Opinion polls gave Maduro leads ranging between 10 and 20 points, though the last survey conducted by Datanalisis last week gave him a narrower, 9.7-point edge.

“The opposition was able to excite its people,” said Ignacio Avalos, a sociology professor at Central University of Venezuela.

“Maduro has two very important weapons in his favour: Chavez’s last wish and the state machinery,” he said.

The phrase “Chavez, I swear, my vote is for Maduro” was recited in songs and rallies by Chavistas.

“The commitment to the revolution is very strong and the people are here. The people will massively go out and vote to defend his legacy,” said Denis Oropeza, 33, a museum employee voting in the poor “January 23” neighbourhood where Chavez used to vote.

Opposition supporters say Maduro would continue policies that they deem disastrous for the economy of a nation that, despite its oil wealth, imports most of its food.

“When I look at Venezuela, with all that oil, and see what is going on around me today, it makes me so terribly disappointed,” said Alexis Chacon, 74, who runs a chemical company. “The Hugo Chavez nightmare has sunk this country.”