Venezuelan challenger edges closer to Chavez, but close enough?

With elections only days away in Venezuela, opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles, has gained ground in an opinion poll, though he still lags behind President Hugo Chavez.

Carlos Garcia/Reuters
Venezuela's opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles (l.) greets supporters during a campaign rally in La Guaira outside Caracas September 24.

Venezuelan opposition candidate Henrique Capriles edged closer to President Hugo Chavez in an opinion poll but remained 10 percentage points behind the socialist leader in the run-up to the Oct. 7 election, according to two sources who have seen the poll.

Recent Datanalisis' polls show support for Capriles, a 40-year-old state governor, growing in the waning days of the campaign as he continues campaigning across the country.

Capriles' has vowed to create a Brazilian-style "modern left" that balances free enterprise with social welfare programs. Investors expect him to end a five-year nationalization crusade and reduce state intervention in the economy.

Chavez, who has been in office for 14 years, says he will deepen his oil-financed socialism if he wins another six-year term. That would likely feature continued confrontation with the private sector and efforts to support leftist allies in the region.

Capriles on Monday led a massive caravan in the sweltering state of Vargas, alongside the Caribbean Sea, waving to supporters from atop a truck. He at times narrowly averted being dragged to the ground by female fans trying to hug him.

"Let me tell you, someone who hasn't done what they were supposed to do in 14 years is not going to do it in the next six years," Capriles told supporters, who sang and danced to salsa in the spirit of Venezuela's political rallies, which often look more like street parties.

A group of about 100 Chavez supporters waited at the end of the caravan carrying signs that said "Get out, thief" and throwing water bottles at Capriles. The confrontation fizzled without incident, in contrast to recent skirmishes at rallies that have left several people wounded.

The Datanalisis' survey showed Capriles with 37.2 percent of the vote compared with 47.3 percent for Chavez, closer than the 12.5 percentage point difference registered in the last Datanalisis survey.

The poll, which had a margin of error of 2.4 percent, was conducted between Aug. 25 and Sept. 5, the sources said. Datanalisis did not immediately respond to requests for confirmation of the details.

Chavez, 58, leads the majority of the country's best-known polls but they are notoriously controversial and divergent in Venezuela. Capriles' numbers have been creeping up and another well-known pollster, Consultores 21, has the candidates neck-and-neck.

A close result could spark protests and possibly accusations of fraud. Chavez has repeatedly said the opposition will refuse to accept the results should it lose while the opposition says Chavez will try to avoid handing over power.

Investors broadly believe Capriles' government would usher in greater economic stability and gradual dismantling of Chavez's system of currency and price controls.

Capriles also hopes to tap into growing discontent with crime, unemployment and product shortages.

Though Chavez's sweeping crusade of nationalizations and fiery rhetoric have scared off conservative investors, the country's bonds are among the most actively traded emerging market securities thanks to their high yields.

Venezuela's black market for dollars, the result of a increasingly strict controls on foreign exchange, has shot up in recent weeks to more than double the official exchange rate of 4.3 bolivars.

Chavez on Monday led a massive rally in the plains state of Portuguesa, singing to the crowd, grilling campaign volunteers on their get-out-the-vote efforts and leading supporters in chanting "Chavez will win on October 7."

"What we have done, and it's a lot, is nothing compared with what we will do in the next years of socialist government," said Chavez, wearing a pale blue and white striped jacket and black pants. "I am no longer Chavez at this point, Chavez has become the people, we are all Chavez."

He has appealed to working-class Venezuelans by playing up his humble roots in a small plains village of where he once sold papaya candies and played baseball in dusty fields.

The government recently announced a book of stories about Chavez's youth, compiled by two Cuban reporters who searched YouTube for stories that the garrulous socialist has told during close to 14 years of Sunday talk-shows.

His government pumped up state spending to give out apartments, home appliances and pensions to poor Venezuelans, and has highlighted his social "missions" that provide low-cost health care, job training and university education.

Opposition leaders accuse him of tilting the election in his favor by using state resources for his campaign and dominating television networks with "chain" broadcasts that force private networks to carry his speeches.

He appears to have largely recovered from a cancer diagnosed last year that for weeks left him almost completely out of the public spotlight. Doctors say it can take several years before remission can be totally ruled out.

Additional reporting by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Enrique Andres Pretel, Bill Trott and Cynthia Ostermanecvnh

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