CARACAS: Hundreds of thousands of supporters descended on Caracas for a mass rally called by the President, Hugo Chavez, before the toughest election of his 14-year rule.
The former soldier, who recovered from cancer this year, faces 40-year-old Henrique Capriles, an energetic state governor.
Mr Chavez danced in the rain and led his followers in song on Thursday night, as the former military officer fights to win an additional six-year term in tomorrow’s critical presidential vote.
In the final mass gathering of his campaign, Mr Chavez, 58, warned the crowd that his defeat would bring an end to his popular social programs and leave the oil-rich nation of 30 million in the hands of oligarchs
”We cannot allow them to demolish Venezuela again,” he said as he stood in the driving rain. ”The life of this nation is at stake. The life of the people is in play.”
Although polls in Venezuela are notoriously unreliable, one of the more respected puts Mr Chavez 10 points ahead, but another has the candidates neck and neck.
The President has led Venezuela under a banner of 21st century socialism, with help from Fidel Castro in Cuba.
He inspires a quasi-religious fervour among supporters, who know him as El Comandante. Last night in Caracas, they were expected to sing with him, walk alongside his motorcade and scream at his every word.
Mr Capriles’s rallies have also been impressive, bringing in a large part of Venezuela’s electorate that has had enough. They have not always gone smoothly though. Last Saturday, three opposition activists were killed by gunmen reportedly firing from a government vehicle.
It provoked little comment in a country with one of the world’s highest murder rates. With figures in Caracas comparable to Baghdad, insecurity is the main election theme and many are worried the President will not go quietly should he lose. Much of his support comes from those in poor neighbourhoods, many of whom are armed.
Despite a wealthy background, Mr Capriles has also gained strong support in the slums. He has worked tirelessly, travelling the country, meeting as many people as possible. So far, it seems Mr Chavez’s use of state resources, including compulsory air time across television networks, has tipped the balance in the government’s favour.
The President rarely calls Mr Capriles by name, referring to him as the ”candidate of the Right” or ”the loser”. The government television network has read out accusations about his sex life and a government website attacked his Jewish roots.
High oil prices have funded social projects that critics decry as government vote buying. Free housing has been provided for a lucky few of the poor while their subsidised supermarkets are insulated from near 25 per cent annual inflation, the highest in the Americas.
As well as a runaway economy and regular blackouts, Venezuelans must also consider whether Mr Chavez will survive another six years. He announced in June that he had cancer and has spent months shuttling between Caracas and Havana for treatment.
”The candidate of the government reached office with good intentions, but he’s no longer interested in change, he’s sick with power,” Mr Capriles said this week.
Telegraph, London; Miami Herald
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