Chavez faces critical test in Venezuela election

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez gestures during a press conference at Miraflores Palace in Caracas, October 6, 2012. Chavez, in power for almost 14 years, is vying for a fourth term in office. EITAN ABRAMOVICH/AFP/Getty Images

CARACAS, Venezuela 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 on Sunday in a closely fought presidential election.

Reveille blared from sound trucks around the capital to awaken voters and the bugle call was later replaced by folk music mixed with a recording of 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.

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 couldn't be higher.

If 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 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 Chavez's political machine thoroughly contronews conference Saturday night, and when asked about the possibility of disputes over the vote, he said he expected both sides to accept the result. He says he has successfully emerged from about a year of cancer treatment.

"It's a mature, democratic country where the institutions work, where we have one of the best electoral systems in the world," Chavez told reporters at the presidential palace.

But he also said he hoped no one would try to use the vote to play a "destabilizing game." If they do, he said, "we'll be alert to neutralize them."

Venezuelans line up to cast their vote at a polling station in Caracas on October 7, 2012.
RODRIGO ARANGUA/AFP/Getty Images

His opponents mounted a noisy protest in Caracas and other major cities on Saturday night, beating pots and pans from the windows of their homes to show displeasure with Chavez — and also their hopes for change. Drivers on downtown streets honked horns, joining the din.

The 40-year-old Capriles, a wiry former governor affectionately called "Skinny" by supporters, has infused the opposition with new optimism, and opinion polls pointed to him giving Chavez his closest election.

Some recent polls showed Chavez with a lead of about 10 percentage points, while others put the two candidates roughly even.

"Chavez is going to fight until his last breath. He doesn't know how to do anything else," said Antonio Padron, a bank employee backing the president.

Padron expressed optimism that the 58-year-old Chavez would win, noting the leader has survived a fight with cancer that has included surgery, chemotherapy and radiation treatment.

But Padron predicted a close finish: "It's a tough fight. The opposition has never been this strong."

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