CARACAS, Venezuela (AFP) — Venezuelans voted yesterday with President Hugo Chavez's 14-year socialist revolution on the line as the leftist leader faced youthful rival Henrique Capriles in his toughest electoral challenge yet.
Sitting on the world's biggest proven crud/e oil deposits, Chavez has used petro-dollars to build a network of regional allies and secure the loyalty of poor Venezuelans dependent on the generosity of his social programs.
Cuba and other Latin American regimes are watching closely to see if 40-year-old Capriles, at the head of a united opposition, can pull off a stunning upset and defeat the leftist anti-American firebrand.
Voters stood in long lines to cast their ballots after Chavez supporters played military-style bugles before dawn to rally loyalists of the president, who is seeking a new six-year term to cement his oil-funded revolution.
Capriles has surged in opinion polls, attracting huge rallies with his promises to curb runaway crime and unite the divided country.
Chavez, who won 62 percent of the vote in the 2006 election, held a 10-point lead in the latest opinion poll, but other surveys have put the rivals in a statistical dead heat.
Weakened by a bout with cancer, the 58-year-old president stepped up his campaign this week, even dancing in the rain at a Caracas rally on Thursday as he warned that Capriles would bury his popular social "missions."
The vocal US critic and standard-bearer of Latin America's radical left sent a Twitter message to voters on election day: "Good morning, good world! The battle has started!"
From the capital's hillside slums to its wealthier neighborhoods, many Venezuelans arrived at polling stations hours before they opened, heeding the candidates' call for people to vote early.
In the 23 de Enero slum, a Chavez stronghold, troops ensured security as people stood in line to vote in a school.
"He can't lose today after all he's done," said Yurbi Castro, 38, an agronomy expert who a red shirt, the color of Chavez loyalists.
In the middle-class Chacao district, a Capriles bastion, hundreds of people waited to vote as a vendor sold coffee and empanadas.
"I want change, I want peace, I want to be able to calmly walk down the street," said Miguel Villarroel, 32, a hotel administrator who voted for Capriles and blamed Chavez for the rising murder rate.
Maria Rodriguez, 37, a watch store owner, and her friend Jenny Diaz, 36, a publicist, had been waiting to vote since 3:30 am. The two women worried that Chavez and his supporters would not accept defeat.
If Chavez loses, "the criminals will go out on the street to scare people," Diaz said. "(Chavez) won't accept defeat easily."
Election experts say the electronic voting system is reliable and both candidates have signed a pledge to accept the result. But suspicions run high that whoever loses will not concede defeat.
In a sign of the high tensions, three Capriles supporters were shot dead last weekend during a campaign event in western Venezuela.
Chavez is a highly polarizing figure who survived a coup in 2002 and became popular with the long-neglected poor for using the country's vast oil wealth to fund health and education programs.
Mentored by Cuba's Fidel Castro, he has become the leading voice of Latin America's left, railing against the US "empire" while befriending Iran and Syria.
Capriles, who describes himself as David fighting Goliath, won an unprecedented primary election in February. Fragmented during Chavez's rule, the opposition united for once behind his candidacy.
"Today we are millions of Davids! God will guide our way," Capriles tweeted on election day, adding: "let's all vote thinking that we can and will be better."
Nicknamed "Skinny," the slim former Miranda state governor campaigned in around 300 towns, wearing a baseball cap in Venezuela's yellow, blue and red as he vowed to unite the country, accusing Chavez of being "sick with power."
The opposition accused Chavez of misusing public funds for his campaign and dominating the airwaves while forcing government workers to attend rallies through intimidation.