NEWS

Venezuela election triggers high turnout, polls remain open

10/07/2012 09:03 EDT | Updated 12/07/2012 05:12 EST
Voting stations in Venezuela will remain open until people who have not yet cast their ballot vote, the president of the country’s electoral council said Sunday night.

Tibisay Lucena didn't say how many voting stations still had voters waiting. Nor did she say for how long the polling stations might remain open.

President Hugo Chavez’s biggest political challenger to date, Henrique Capriles, complained on Twitter Sunday that officials should close the voting stations on time, saying most lacked lines.

But dozens of red-shirted Chavez loyalists on motorcycles cruised downtown Caracas, and Robert Flores, the leader of one band, said they were trying to prevent voting stations from closing if some people hadn’t voted yet. A Capriles campaign spokesman called for the motorcyclists to be banned from the streets.

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.

Both camps said turnout was high, with millions of Venezuelans casting ballots. Long lines formed at many polling centers, with queues of hundreds of voters snaking along sidewalks and around blocks in many parts of Caracas.

Capriles has united the opposition in a contest between two sides that distrust each other so deeply there were concerns whether a close election result would be respected.

"We will recognize the results, whatever they are," Chavez told reporters after casting his vote in Caracas.

Chavez was greeted at the polling centre by American actor Danny Glover and Guatemalan Nobel Peace Prize laureate Rigoberta Menchu. He said he was pleased to see a "massive turnout."

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.

With a Capriles win, an abrupt foreign policy shift can be expected, including halting preferential oil deals with allies such as Cuba, 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 controls the wheels of government.

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

"There's a little anxiety on one side and also on the other," said Deyanira Duarte, a housewife who voted for Capriles in downtown Caracas. She said she was worried about what could happen if there were a dispute.

Carlos Julio Silva, a bodyguard employed by a private security company, said whatever his faults, Chavez deserves re-election for helping people with programs including free medical care and public housing.

"There is corruption, there's plenty of bureaucracy, but the people have never had a leader who cared about this country," Silva said after voting for Chavez at a school in the Caracas slum of Petare. "That's why the people are going to re-elect Hugo Rafael Chavez Frias."

Chavez's critics say the president has inflamed divisions by labeling his opponents "fascists," `'Yankees" and "neo-Nazis," while Chavez backers allege Capriles would halt generous government programs that assist the poor.

During Chavez's final rally Thursday in Caracas, he shouted to the crowd: "We're going to give the bourgeoisie a beating!"

Reveille blared from sound trucks around the capital to awaken voters on Sunday morning, 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.

Troops dispatched across country

"I'm really tired of all this polarization," said Lissette Garcia, a 39-year-old clothes seller and Capriles supporter who voted Sunday in the affluent Caracas district of Las Mercedes. "I want to reconnect with all my friends who are `Chavistas."'

Some said they waited in line for more than four hours to vote, while in other areas the lines moved more quickly.

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

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

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.

While his support has slipped at home, Chavez has also seen his international influence ebb since he emerged in the mid-2000s as leader of a like-minded club of newly elected Latin American leftist presidents.

About 100,000 voters are expected to cast ballots around the world.

The candidates:

Hugo Chavez, 58, has been president since 1999. As an army paratroop commander, he led a failed 1992 coup attempt. He was jailed, later pardoned and elected president in 1998. He survived a short-lived 2002 coup. His Bolivarian Revolution movement, named after 19th-century independence hero Simon Bolivar, is moving Venezuela toward socialism, he says. Chavez has twice won re-election. His only clear electoral loss came in 2007, when voters rejected constitutional changes. Chavez announced in June 2011 that he had a cancerous tumour removed from his pelvic region. He has since undergone another surgery, chemotherapy and radiation treatment. He now says he is cancer-free.

Henrique Capriles, 40, a former state governor, won a first-ever opposition presidential primary in February. Capriles won a congressional seat at age 26. He was a Caracas district mayor and in 2008 defeated a Chavez ally, Diosdado Cabello, to become governor in Miranda state, which includes part of Caracas. Capriles describes his views as centre-left. He says he admires former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s promotion of pro-business policies while also funding social programs for the poor.

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