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Venezuela vote a critical test for divided nation

Associated Press Modified: October 7, 2012 at 1:31 pm •  Published: October 7, 2012
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CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — 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.

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.

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.

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.

Others said they were simply pleased to be out backing their candidate.

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.

"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 centers Sunday.

Defense Minister Henry Rangel Silva said as he voted that all had been calm in the morning and he hoped that would continue. He said if any groups try to "disturb order, they should know there is an armed force prepared and equipped and trained... to put down any attempt at disturbances."

He didn't identify the groups to which he was referring.

Chavez 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. He says he has successfully emerged from about a year of cancer treatment.

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