Voters line up for Venezuela election

Electorate to choose between continuing Chavez-style politics or a new era

 

Venezuelans lined up today to vote whether to honour Hugo Chavez's dying wish for a long-time loyalist to continue his hardline socialism or hand power to a young challenger vowing business-friendly changes.

Acting president Nicolas Maduro had a double-digit lead in most polls heading into election day, buoyed by Mr Chavez's public blessing before he died from cancer last month. But the gap had narrowed in the final days, with one survey putting it at 7 percentage points.

Maduro supporters mobilised voters in the rough barrios of Caracas, where the late Mr Chavez is revered as a hero of the poor, sounding a pre-dawn bugle call urging citizens to get out and vote. Lines formed under a blistering sun outside voting centres all around the capital.

"Nicolas is going to win, but we can't afford to be triumphalist. We need to work hard to get people out to vote," said Chavista activist Mario Izarra (33), who was up all night helping the Socialist Party mobilise voters and cast his own ballot at 6am.

Mr Maduro, a 50-year-old former bus driver who trumpets his working-class roots, is promising to deepen Mr Chavez's "21st century socialism" if he triumphs. Mr Capriles, an athletic 40-year-old who has generated widespread enthusiasm among the opposition, wants to take Venezuela down a more centrist path.

Whoever wins will inherit control of the world's biggest oil reserves in an OPEC nation whose stark political polarisation is one of Mr Chavez's many legacies. Also at stake is the generous economic aid Mr Chavez showered on left-leaning Latin American governments from Cuba to Bolivia.

Both camps urged supporters to cast their ballots early and be on alert for fraud, though election observers have endorsed past votes as clean. Given the deep mutual mistrust, a close or contested result could raise the chance of unrest.

Some 170 international observers were on hand for the election, many from left-leaning political parties across Latin America. Polling centres are slated to close at 6pm (11.30pm Irish time), though voting could run longer if there are still lines.

Mr Chavez's fourth presidential election win in October saw record turnout of 80 per cent, in large part thanks to an overpowering voter mobilisation campaign by the Chavista camp. This time, though, both sides worry that participation could be lower because of election fatigue.

Many Venezuelans could be forgiven for feeling like they are stuck in a never-ending campaign. Opposition primaries early last year were followed by the ailing president's dramatic re-election, and then a vote to choose state governors in December.

Mr Maduro has cloaked himself in the imagery of Mr Chavez and calls himself the late president's "son." At every rally, Mr Maduro played a video of Mr Chavez naming him as successor in December - "my firm opinion, clear like the full moon, irreversible" - in his final speech to Venezuelans.

If Mr Maduro wins, he will immediately face big challenges as he tries to stamp his authority on a disparate ruling coalition while lacking his mentor's charisma, or the healthy state finances that Mr Chavez enjoyed in last year's race.

It is hard to predict how he might do things his own way. Like many senior officials, Mr Maduro was passionately loyal to Mr Chavez and never voiced a different opinion in public.

Supporters say he could use his background as a union negotiator-turned-diplomat to build bridges, perhaps even with the United States after tensions during Mr Chavez's 14-year rule.

But there has been little sign of his softer side on the campaign trail. Mr Maduro's rhetoric has veered from outraged - alleging opposition plots to kill him using mercenaries - to light-hearted, such as poking fun at his often-cited tale of how he was visited by Chavez's spirit in the form of a bird.

Mr Capriles will have an even tougher time if he stages an upset. One of the biggest challenges will be to win over suspicious supporters of Chavez and Maduro. Both repeatedly derided the opposition candidate as nothing more than a pampered rich kid, a traitor, and a puppet of "US imperialism."

Mr Capriles, who lost to Mr Chavez in October's election, has denounced Mr Maduro and his "coterie" as phony socialists who have enriched themselves while paying only lip service to Chavez's deeply held ideology.

Mr Capriles is touting a Brazil-style model that mixes pro-business policies with heavy state spending on the poor, a recipe that made the South American giant one of the world's hottest emerging economies in the past decade.

The opposition says Mr Maduro's tenure has been a disaster for all Venezuelans, with a devaluation and new currency controls.

"Capriles is our only hope. He's the best leader the opposition has had and could be a great president," Alberto Gomez, a 55-year-old bakery owner, said after voting in an upscale district of Caracas. "The country is a mess," he added. "It's time to forget Chavez and create a new Venezuela outside of his shadow."

If he wins, Mr Capriles says he will stop "gifting" Venezuela's oil wealth to other nations like Cuba, and will cool ties with distant Chavez-era allies such as Syria, Belarus and Iran.

Though he hails from a wealthy family, he has sought to establish his street credibility, riding a motorcycle, playing pick-up basketball games in shantytowns, and almost always wearing a baseball cap.

He faces a fierce battle, however, to beat the memory of Venezuela's late leader.

"This election is not Capriles versus Maduro," said housewife Rosa Elena Marcano, 60, at the opposition's last rally. "It's Capriles against Chavez's ghost."