After almost 14 years in power, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez seeks a new six-year term today, but he faces his toughest challenge yet from youthful opposition rival Henrique Capriles.
The leftist leader retains a loyal following among the country’s poor, who have propelled him to easy victories in past elections, but Capriles has surged in opinion polls after an energetic door-to-door campaign across the country.
While he remains the odds-on favorite, Chavez has urged his supporters not to declare victory too early and to turn out to vote en masse today. He also charges that the “far right” plans not to recognize his victory.
The 58-year-old leader, who was operated twice for cancer and underwent chemotherapy in the past two years, stepped up his campaign this week with giant rallies that climaxed with a massive demonstration in Caracas on Thursday.
Speaking under torrential rain, Chavez warned that “the life of the nation is at stake” as he charged that Capriles would close popular social programs that have brought free medical care and subsidized food to humble neighborhoods.
Sitting on the world’s biggest proven crude oil deposits, Chavez has used the country’s oil wealth to reduce poverty, child mortality and illiteracy.
However, he also admitted making mistakes and vowed to “become a better president” if he wins re-election. The constitution was amended in 2009 to allow the president to seek multiple terms in office.
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 socialist president has also rankled the private sector by nationalizing a slew of companies in the oil, electricity and bank sectors as part of his “Bolivarian revolution.”
Capriles, a 40-year-old former Miranda state governor, has vowed to unite the country, accusing Chavez of being “sick with power” and dividing the country.
“[Chavez] changed my family. We don’t speak to each other anymore,” a woman in her 50s, Yoelia Gutierez, said as she grabbed Capriles stickers at a campaign tent in a Caracas square.
Chavez held a 10 point lead in the latest survey, but Capriles has climbed in opinion polls and attracted hundreds of thousands of people at his own Caracas rally last Sunday.
Capriles, who describes himself as the biblical David fighting Goliath, was picked by the opposition in an unprecedented primary election in February.
Around 19 million voters are called to vote in today’s election. Some 140,000 troops have been deployed to prevent violence while alcohol sales are banned until tomorrow.
A South American observer mission says the conditions are set for a transparent election.
While the opposition is better organized this time around, Chavez can count on a well-oiled campaign operation, with supporters waking up voters with bugles on the morning of elections and bikers taking slum residents to polling booths.
Capriles is considered a more business-friendly candidate, but he has tried to woo Chavez’s base by presenting himself as a center-left politician who would continue the president’s social “missions.”
Chavez accuses his rival of representing an “unpatriotic” upper class.
“[Capriles] is telling pure lies,” Cevallo Osto, a 21-year-old student, said as he waved a Venezuelan flag during the president’s Caracas rally on Thursday.
“If Chavez goes, the Venezuelan revolution is over,” he said.