Venezuelans voted today on the legacy left by late President Hugo Chavez, who asked voters before dying of cancer in March to support his socialist revolution by electing Nicolas Maduro.
The 50-year-old former bus driver is counting on a wave of sympathy for his mentor, who tapped oil revenue to reduce poverty, to defeat the 40-year-old opposition candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski.
Voting began at 6 a.m. and was still taking place after 6 p.m. as Venezuelans lined up at polling centers to cast a ballot. If Maduro wins, he will need to confront accelerating inflation, shortages of consumer goods and weakening growth that has already eroded part of the support he initially had, said Luis Vicente Leon, president of the Caracas-based polling firm Datanalisis.
“We’re breaking records in terms of voter participation,” Maduro said after casting his ballot in Caracas, adding that about 11.5 million Venezuelans had voted by around 2 p.m. local time. More than 18 million people are on the country’s electoral roll.
Maduro’s Twitter account was infiltrated today and hackers tried to break into the electoral council website, Vice President Jorge Arreaza said on state television.
Maduro campaigned on a pledge to fulfill Chavez’s vision of a “21st century revolution” in South America’s largest oil producer.
“There will be no pact with the bourgeois,” Maduro told reporters today. “What there will be is a Bolivarian dialogue with the entire country.”
Maduro said fighting crime and attracting “productive” investment would be his two top priorities if elected. He also said that Venezuela would be willing to normalize relations with the U.S. if it “receives respect.”
During his 14 years in power, Chavez increased state control over the economy by nationalizing more than 1,000 companies or their assets and introducing currency and price controls.
“Now, the people get to decide,” Maduro said yesterday on state television. “Whatever they decide, the word of the people is sacred.”
Capriles, after the electoral council started counting votes, said on his Twitter account that there was an intent to “change the will of the people.” He didn’t give additional details.
Authorities have arrested 43 people accused of crimes including the disruption of polling centers, General Wilmer Barrientos, who heads the security plan for the election, said on state television. He said he is increasing patrols to ensure order.
Capriles voted at around 1:30 p.m. today in Caracas and urged supporters to turn out to vote in an “avalanche.” Capriles, who temporarily stepped down as governor of Miranda state to run for president, has vowed to make the country safer and boost incomes.
“We all know what’s happening, how our forces are spread, our forces are in full development,” he said. “Something good is happening and something is going to happen in Venezuela.”
Chavez tapped the world’s biggest oil reserves to help cut poverty to 29.5 percent in 2011 from 48.6 percent in 2002, according to the United Nations. Maduro, who served as foreign minister before Chavez appointed him vice president last year, has called the election a choice between capitalism and socialism.
Chavez won his third six-year term last October when he defeated Capriles by 11 percentage points after raising salaries, constructing thousands of homes for poorer families and increasing cheap imports to combat shortages.
Capriles says he would increase police patrols and step up gun control measures while cracking down on drug trafficking, according to proposals posted on his campaign website.
Under Chavez homicides almost quadrupled, jumping to 16,030 in 2012 from 4,550 in 1998, the year before he took office, according to data published by the government and the United Nations. They rose 23 percent in the past two years, and the oil-rich nation has overtaken Colombia as South America’s most dangerous country since 2006.
Capriles has also criticized the government’s handling of the economy and corruption while saying he won’t eliminate social programs for the poor.
Venezuela devalued the bolivar by 32 percent in February to close a 2012 fiscal deficit estimated at 11 percent of gross domestic product by Moody’s Investors Service.
Chavez, a former paratrooper, died March 5 after a two-year battle with an undisclosed type of cancer. Maduro, who calls himself “Chavez’s son,” has mentioned his predecessor’s name more than 7,200 times since his death, according to a website tracking his speeches.
Capriles says Maduro hurt the incomes of Venezuelans when he carried out a devaluation in February.
“Today salaries have been cut in half,” Capriles told supporters in the city of Barquisimeto on April 11. “Today it costs much more to shop at stores, to buy medicines, spare parts for cars, buses and motorcycles.”
Consumer prices rose 23 percent in February from a year earlier, the fastest pace in 10 months and the highest official rate in the hemisphere. Rising prices are compounded by shortages of products on supermarket shelves. The central bank’s scarcity index, which measures the amount of goods that are out of stock in the market, rose to a record high of 20.4 percent in January.
The bolivar devaluation and dollar shortages could push the economy into recession this year, according to HSBC Holdings Plc. The London-based bank expects Venezuela’s economy to contract 0.6 percent after previously forecasting growth of 0.5 percent, according to a second-quarter note to clients.