Venezuela Vote a Critical Test for Divided Nation - ABC News
Trucks blared reveille to awaken voters on Sunday as President Hugo Chavez's crusade to transform Venezuela into a socialist state was put to the stiffest electoral test of his nearly 14 years in power.
Later, folk music poured from loudspeakers in places, mixed with a recording of Chavez's voice saying "those who love the homeland come with me."
Chavez's challenger, Henrique Capriles, united the opposition for what has become 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 an eventual loosening of state economic controls and an increase in private investment though a tense transition would likely follow until the January inauguration because Chavez's political machine thoroughly controls the wheels of government.
Many Venezuelans were nervous about what might happen if the disputes erupt over the election's announced outcome.
A defaced election campaign poster of... View Full Caption
A defaced election campaign poster of Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez hangs in Caracas, Venezuela, Saturday, Oct. 6, 2012. Venezuelans will head to the polls Sunday to vote in their country's presidential election, deciding on whether to keep Chavez or seek change. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano) Close
"Nobody trusts the other people, especially when it's their political rivals," said Maria Villareal, a teacher and Capriles supporter who stocked up on groceries Saturday. "We're in a divided country, and I think Chavez is the one responsible."
She and other Chavez critics say he has inflamed divisions by labeling his opponents "fascists," ''Yankees" and "neo-Nazis," while Chavez backers allege Capriles will 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!"
David Hernandez, a Chavez supporter, agreed the mood was tense but he blamed the opposition.
"Chavez is going to win and Capriles will have to accept his defeat," Hernandez said, standing next to his parked motorcycle on a downtown street. "If Capriles doesn't accept his defeat, there could be problems."
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 centers Sunday.
Chavez, who says he has emerged successfully from long treatment for cancer, held an impromptu news conference Saturday night, and when asked about the possibility of disputes over the vote, he said he expected both sides to accept the result.
"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."
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.