Venezuelans voted on Sunday with President Hugo Chavez facing the biggest electoral challenge yet to his socialist rule from a young rival tapping into discontent over crime and cronyism.
Henrique Capriles, a centrist state governor, edged towards the still-popular Chavez in final polls thanks to a vigorous campaign that united the opposition and made him its best chance of ending Chavez’s 14-year rule.
Chavez has used record oil revenue to support ideological allies around the world while preaching a fiercely anti-US line, so the election will be watched eagerly from the United States to Belarus and Iran.
Opposition supporters banged pots and pans in a protest against the president late on Saturday in some parts of Caracas.
Chavez loyalists in poor neighbourhoods, where the flamboyant former soldier draws his most fervent following, then blew bugles and trumpets in a pre-dawn wake-up call for voters. Long queues formed at some polling centres before they opened.
“I ask political actors from the left, right and centre to prepare emotionally to accept tomorrow’s (Monday’s) results. It’s not going to be the end of the world for anyone,” Chavez said during a last-minute news conference at the presidential palace.
The 58-year-old president staged a remarkable comeback from cancer this year. But he could not match the energy of past campaigns — or the pace set by his 40-year-old basketball-loving opponent.
Most well-known pollsters put Chavez in front. But two have Capriles just ahead, and his numbers have crept up in others.
There are no formal international observers, although Venezuela has invited a delegation from the UNASUR group of South American nations to “accompany” the vote.
Local groups will be monitoring and both sides say they trust the electronic, fingerprint vote system. The opposition says it will have witnesses at all of the 13,810 polling centres.
Capriles geared up on Saturday for the vote by hiking a mountain trail on the edge of the capital, donning sports gear and mirrored sunglasses and posing for pictures with supporters.