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Chavez vs. Capriles: The battle for Venezuela

Presidential elections are held in Venezuela today, where incumbent President Hugo Chavez faces Henrique Capriles, a centrist. Chavez has ruled Venezuela for 14 years, and has enacted socialist policies. If elected, Capriles is expected to turn the country in a dramatic new direction.

By Ian JamesAssociated Press / October 7, 2012

Venezuelans line up before casting their votes during the presidential election in Caracas October 7. Venezuelans vote on Sunday, with President Hugo Chavez facing the biggest electoral challenge yet to his socialist rule from a young rival, Henrique Capriles, who has tapped into discontent over crime and cronyism.

Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters

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Caracas, Venezuela

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.

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Reveille blared from sound trucks to awaken voters 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 lined up two hours before polls opened at dawn.

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.

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.

"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 wealthy Caracas district of Las Mercedes. "I want to reconnect with all my friends who are 'Chavistas.'"

Chavez's critics say the president 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."

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