Venezuela Awaits Chavez Fate in Vote After Historic Turnout

Venezuelans to Determine Chavez’s Fate in Closest Election Yet
People line up to cast their vote at a polling station in Caracas on Sunday. Photographer: Rodrigo Arangua/AFP/Getty Images

Venezuelans awaited the fate of President Hugo Chavez and his self-proclaimed socialist revolution after historic turnout in the election against younger rival Henrique Capriles Radonski.

Pro-Chavez supporters partied in the streets of downtown Caracas on expectations the 58-year-old former paratrooper will extend his 14-year rule. More than 18 million people were registered to vote in the election that could extend Chavez’s 14 years in power until 2019 or see an upset by Capriles, who described his challenge against the incumbent as a battle between David and Goliath.

Chavez, 58, is looking to push ahead with policies that have seen the seizure of more than 1,000 companies by the state and the use of rising oil revenue to fund popular social programs. The economic model has lowered poverty rates, stoked inflation and driven away foreign investment. The economic problems, a two-year battle with cancer and the challenge from Capriles has led Chavez to tone down the triumphalism of his past campaigns.

“I know I’ve committed errors, like everyone has, but I promise to be a better president starting Oct. 8,” Chavez told tens of thousands of supporters standing in rain in downtown Caracas on Oct. 4. “The future of the country is in your hands.”

Electronic Voting

Antonio Hernandez, a 47-year-old who resells clothing and mobile phones, said he voted for Chavez in 2006 and is now voting for Capriles because the government didn’t fulfill its promises to improve health and education.

“I see the same schools as when I was 18, the same hospitals,” Hernandez said today in the Caracas slum of Los Flores de Catia. “If they offer you change and they don’t give it to you, you have to try out the other side.”

Some polls stayed open more than two hours past the scheduled closing time in Caracas as lines of voters waited to cast their ballots. Representatives of both campaigns said they were pleased with how voting unfolded today and said participation was at a historic high. Venezuela’s voting system is electronic except for the 100,000 people registered abroad. Voting isn’t required by law.

Polling company Datanalisis said that it expects a participation rate of about 79 percent. Turnout has been “massive,” Tibisay Lucena, president of Venezuela’s Electoral Board, told reporters today.

Respecting the Results

Both Capriles and Chavez vowed to respect the results of the election.

“Be it one vote that makes the difference or three million, we as responsible political players must recognize the results,” Chavez said after casting his vote in Caracas.

Some Venezuelans have been stocking up on water and food in case violence follows the vote, while hospitals are asking employees to work longer shifts to treat the wounded from any disturbances. One person was shot dead by a motorcycle driver while waiting in line to vote in Caracas, newspaper El Universal reported.

Polls have been inconclusive while mostly favoring a Chavez re-election. Chavez had 44.7 percent support against 37 percent for Capriles, according to a Datanalisis poll concluded on Sept. 18, Credit Suisse said in an Oct. 5 report, citing the private survey. It didn’t give a margin of error. A Sept. 27 to Oct. 2 survey of 1,546 people by Caracas-based Consultores 21 gave Capriles a lead of 51.8 percent to 47.2 percent. The poll had a margin of error of 2.5 percentage points.

‘Better Off Now’

“We’re better off now than we were before and in the future we have to be even better,” said 44-year-old toy store owner Winder Pinero, who said he was backing Chavez during an interview in the 23 de Enero neighborhood of Caracas.

In a tight race, overseas voters could play a role in the outcome. Thousands of Venezuelans living in Florida traveled to New Orleans to vote after the government closed its consulate in Miami this year. Voters there waved flags and sang the national anthem this morning, while others headed to polling stations in Chicago and New York.

“Not voting is almost criminal in this election,” Jose Francisco Muci, a 20-year-old college student, said after casting his ballot at the Venezuelan consulate in New York today.

Fast Inflation

A government spending boom helped Venezuela’s economy grow 5.4 percent in the first half of 2012. While annual inflation has slowed for nine consecutive months to 18.1 percent, it remains the highest in the world after Belarus, Iran and Argentina, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

“Whoever wins the election will have to deal with a macro economy that is increasingly out of sync,” said Alberto Ramos, an economist at Goldman Sachs Group Inc., in an Oct. 5 report.

Challenging Chavez is the 40-year-old Capriles, who boasts that he’s never lost an election since taking public office as a lawmaker, mayor and, later, governor of Miranda state. Capriles has focused on resolving what he says are the government’s shortcomings including stalled projects, inefficiency, mounting blackouts and the highest murder rate in South America.

“President Chavez, your time is over, I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for showing me the direction to take; it’s love not hate, light not darkness,” Capriles told supporters in central Lara state Oct. 4. “You abused your position of authority, but this was always a spiritual fight, David against Goliath, and we all know David wins.”

Capriles Agenda

Capriles says that he will maintain social programs while gradually unwinding currency and price controls that he claims breed corruption, while promising to create more private sector jobs and increase oil production.

Azael Vivas, standing in line outside a voting center in Los Flores de Catia, said today he still hadn’t decided on a candidate. Vivas, 44, said he’s concerned corruption has increased under Chavez yet thinks Capriles is out of touch with poor Venezuelans.

“He needs more street experience,” Vivas, a lighting designer for theater, said of Capriles. “Venezuela is so rich we should all be wealthy, but very little reaches poor people like me.”

The close election and speculation that an undisclosed form of cancer may force Chavez to step down before 2019 if he wins has led to a rally in Venezuelan bonds, which have returned 30 percent this year through September, the most among major emerging market economies after the Ivory Coast, according to JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s EMBI Global index.

Televised Speeches

Capriles has said the playing field is slanted in Chavez’s favor as he uses state funds for campaigning and broadcasts carried on all television and radio networks for official announcements that often last more than an hour.

The opposition candidate has tried to use his youth and fitness to draw a distinction between himself and Chavez, who slowed his public appearances and speaking times after undergoing a third operation to remove a cancerous tumor in Cuba in February. Chavez says that he’s now cancer-free.

“This election is different from all the previous ones,” that Chavez has faced, Saul Cabrera, vice president of Caracas-based Consultores 21, told reporters on Oct. 2. “Anyone can win.”

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