Venezuelan voters go to the polls

 

President Hugo Chavez’s crusade to transform Venezuela into a socialist state, which has bitterly divided the nation, was put to the stiffest electoral test of his nearly 14 years in power today in a closely-fought presidential election.

Reveille blared from campaign vehicles around the capital Caracas to awaken voters and the bugle call was later replaced by folk music mixed with a recording of Mr Chavez’s voice saying “those who love the homeland come with me”.

At many polling places, voters started lining up hours before polls opened at dawn.

Mr Chavez’s challenger, Henrique Capriles, has united the opposition in a contest between two camps that distrust each other so deeply there are concerns whether a close election result will be respected.

The stakes could not be higher. If Mr Chavez wins a new six-year term, he gets a free hand to push for an even bigger state role in the economy, further limit dissent and continue to befriend rivals of the United States.

If Mr Capriles wins, a radical foreign policy shift can be expected along with a loosening of state economic controls and an increase in private investment. A tense transition would likely follow until the January inauguration because Mr Chavez’s political machine thoroughly controls the wheels of government.

Many Venezuelans were nervous about what might happen if the disputes erupt over the election’s announced outcome.

David Hernandez, a Chavez supporter, agreed the mood was tense but he blamed the opposition.

“Chavez is going to win and Capriles will have to accept his defeat,” Mr Hernandez said. If Capriles doesn’t accept his defeat, there could be problems.“

Mr Chavez’s critics say the president has inflamed divisions by labelling his opponents “fascists”, “Yankees” and “neo-Nazis”, while his backers allege Mr Capriles would halt generous government programmes that assist the poor.

During Mr Chavez’s final rally on Thursday in Caracas, he shouted to the crowd: “We’re going to give the bourgeoisie a beating.”

In various parts of the city, long lines of hundreds of voters snaked along pavements.

“I’m really tired of all this polarisation,” said Lissette Garcia, a 39-year-old Capriles supporter who voted in the affluent Caracas district of Las Mercedes. “I want to reconnect with all my friends who are ‘Chavistas’.”

Violence flared sporadically during the campaign, including shootings and rock-throwing during rallies and political events. Two Capriles supporters were shot dead in the western state of Barinas last weekend.

Troops were dispatched across Venezuela to guard thousands of voting centres today.

Defence minister Henry Rangel Silva said as he voted that all had been calm in the morning and he hoped that would continue. He said if any groups try to “disturb order, they should know there is an armed force prepared and equipped and trained... to put down any attempt at disturbances”.

Speaking after casting his own vote in Caracas, Mr Chavez insisted he will accept the results of the election.

“We’ll respect the results, whatever they are,” he told reporters.

He also said people are turning out in massive numbers to cast their votes.

Mr Chavez was greeted at the polling centre by American actor Danny Glover and Guatemalan Nobel Peace Prize laureate Rigoberta Menchu.

AP

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