CARACAS—Venezuelans voted Sunday in a closely fought presidential election that will either allow President Hugo Chávez six more years in power to deepen his Socialist revolution or spell the end of his 14-year lock on politics in the oil-rich country.
Opinion polls suggested a very close race between Mr. Chávez, backed by his ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela, and Henrique Capriles, a young state governor supported by a host of opposition parties.
Some polls gave Mr. Chávez a double-digit lead, but others showed the challenger with a narrow lead. What everyone agreed on is that Mr. Capriles had narrowed the gap significantly in the months leading up to the vote and clearly had the momentum.
"There are a lot of people like me that want change. We want people to be motivated to continue investing in the country, to continue working here," said Gabriela Martinez, a 33-year-old fashion designer and Capriles supporter, one of many voters who got up before daybreak to vote soon after polls opened at 6 a.m.
For his part, Mr. Chávez and his redshirted supporters seemed equally confident of victory.
"I never vote for a loser," said Nelson Hernandez, a 55-year-old electrician, who laughed at the possibility of Mr. Capriles winning as he stood in an election line that snaked for several blocks in the working class San Bernardino neighborhood of Caracas. "After the election, everyone here is going to be saying 'I voted for Chávez.' "
Mr. Chávez was asked last week if he would retire from politics if he lost. His response: "Lose? We don't lose. It's not in our destiny."
At stake is control over the world's largest oil reserves. Under Mr. Chávez, Venezuela's government has taken much greater control over the oil sector and output has fallen slightly as a result, at just under 3 million barrels a day.
Mr. Capriles has said he would be more welcoming to private oil companies and would try to depoliticize Petróleos de Venezuela SA, the state oil company that has tripled its number of employees to 120,000 under Mr. Chávez and has become the engine for many of his social programs.
A loss for Mr. Chávez would send shock waves throughout Latin America. During the past decade, the leftist has become the leading voice against the U.S. in the region, often siding with Washington's enemies such as Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He has also helped spur the rise of populist governments in places like Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua.
Cuba and a number of small Caribbean countries get much of their oil at sharply reduced prices from Venezuela. China is providing the Chávez government with a $40 billion revolving fund which is paid for out of the country's oil revenues, while Venezuela is a significant buyer of Russian arms. Mr. Capriles has said he wouldn't give any free oil to Cuba, wouldn't buy any Russian arms, and would hit the reset button on commercial relations with China.
Hanging over the vote are questions about Mr. Chávez's health. The president has battled cancer for much of the past two years. While he says he is cured, his government has given out no information about his condition, raising doubts among Venezuelans. Mr. Chávez also still looks ill, with a bloated head that experts say comes from anticancer treatments.
"Is the person who votes for Chávez voting for him or for an eventual successor?" Teodoro Petkoff, editor of the Caracas newspaper Tal Cual, wrote last week. "We are only asking for the truth.…In a democratic society the health of the candidate-president can't be a secret."
Many voters fear violence in case of an extremely close result. Venezuela has become deeply polarized under Mr. Chávez, who has cast himself as the champion of the poor against the nation's middle and upper classes, which Mr. Chávez demonizes as the escuálidos, or the "squalid ones."
Over the years, Mr. Chávez has created an array of social programs that fund everything from free basic health care in the slums to virtually free housing for the poor, earning him enormous popularity.
But his government has created other problems, like persistent high inflation and price controls that have created shortages of basics including milk and electricity. His wave of nationalizations has hollowed out the private sector. And crime has grown quickly—from about 19 murders per 100,000 residents per year in 1998 to 45 in 2010—one of the world's highest murder rates, according to United Nations statistics.
On the eve of the vote, scores of Caracas residents began banging pots and pans outside their homes near the presidential palace of Miraflores as a protest against the president. Mr. Chavez's supporters responded with a barrage of fireworks that drowned out the noise.
Mr. Capriles, 40 years old, has gone out of his way to woo Mr. Chávez's supporters, telling people that he plans to keep the president's popular social spending programs and add a few new ones of his own, like a cash transfer program for the poor similar to that of Mexico and Brazil.
But he promises a more efficient government, one that can both hand out cash to the poor and pave the roads. It is a message that has struck a chord, so much so that in the closing days of the campaign Mr. Chávez repeatedly pledged he would run a more efficient administration. "I will be a better president," he promised at his closing rally.
Mr. Capriles, who runs marathons, has also run an energetic campaign that has taken him to villages and neighborhoods across the country—a striking contrast to the ailing Mr. Chávez.
"I think Capriles has run an impeccable, flawless campaign," said Moisés Naím, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
"The campaigns speak for themselves," said Francisco Marquez, a 26-year-old recent law-school graduate who said he is voting for Mr. Capriles as he stood in line early Sunday. "You have one candidate that went to 300 towns and you have another that even didn't cover the entire country. Capriles has been to places that were traditionally Chavista strongholds."
Mr. Chávez, however, entered the election with enormous advantages. State-run oil company PDVSA spent $30 billion last year alone on social programs, in particular a housing program that has built tens of thousands of homes in the past year. The government promotes such programs as accomplishments of the president.
The Chávez camp used government advertising, as well as programs that all television and radio stations were forced to broadcast by law, to gain a lopsided publicity edge—43 minutes a day compared with three for the Capriles campaign, according to data compiled by a local nongovernmental organization, Monitoreo Ciudadano.
And the Capriles campaign complained that many of the country's 2.5 million government workers were told that they risked losing their jobs if they didn't vote for the president. The Chávez government has denied such tactics.
During a recent lunch hour, one government worker made the mistake of telling her co-workers that several family members were thinking of voting for the opposition. Her manager soon took her aside, she said, and made it clear that she is expected to vote for the president and secure the vote of her relatives or risk losing her job, she said.
"They put a lot of pressure on you," she said, asking that her name not appear for fear of reprisals.
Whoever wins inherits an economy riddled with problems, including inflation, large government deficits, and a complex array of government price controls, including multiple fixed exchange rates. While the economy is slated to grow about 5.4% this year, economists say the next government will almost certainly have to carry out a large devaluation of the bolivar currency, crimping growth to less than 3%.
Even if they lose, Mr. Chávez and his supporters would retain massive influence, dominating the legislature until new elections are held in two years as well as most of the courts. Other institutions ranging from PDVSA to the army are stacked with Chávez loyalists.
Win or lose, Mr. Capriles's campaign has already marked a sea change in Venezuela. Ever since he came to power, Mr. Chávez has utterly dominated Venezuela's political landscape. Any rivals weren't seen on their own terms, only in contrast to the president.
But this time around, Mr. Capriles has become a political figure in his own right—not just an anti-Chávez candidate.
If Mr. Chávez wins, the opposition could get another shot at the presidency if he dies from cancer in the coming years. Venezuela's constitution calls for new elections if a president dies within the first four years of his term.
Mr. Capriles "would become the president in waiting," said Riordan Roett, the head of Latin American studies at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies. "Chávez can't last much longer, given his health."
—José de Córdoba and Ezequiel Minaya contributed to this article.Write to Kejal Vyas at firstname.lastname@example.org