Venezuelans decide on Sunday whether to honor Hugo Chavez’s dying wish for a longtime 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, largely thanks to his former boss’s public blessing before he died from cancer last month. But the gap has narrowed in the final days, with one survey putting it at 7 percentage points.
His opposition rival, Miranda state Governor Henrique Capriles, who has Jewish roots, says Venezuelans are tired of divisive “Chavista” politics and that his support has surged enough for him to pull off a surprise win.
Maduro, a 50-year-old former bus driver who has trumpeted his working-class roots at every rally, is promising to push forward Chavez’s “21st century socialism” if he triumphs.
“We’re going to have a giant victory. The bigger the margin, the more peaceful the country will be,” the brawny, mustachioed Maduro said. “If the gap is smaller, it is only because they (the opposition) managed to confuse a group of Venezuelans.”
The winner will inherit control of the world’s biggest oil reserves in an OPEC nation whose stark political polarization is one of Chavez’s many legacies.
Also at stake is the generous economic aid Chavez provided to left-leaning Latin American governments from Cuba to Bolivia.
From the country’s Caribbean coastline to its cities and jungle interior, polling centers were due to open from 6 a.m. (0630 EST) until 6 p.m. (1830 EST), though voting could run longer if there are still lines.
Both camps have urged supporters to vote early and be on alert for fraud. Given the deep mutual mistrust, a close or contested result could raise the chance of unrest.