(AFP) – Venezuelans flocked to the polls Sunday to vote for Hugo Chavez’s successor, choosing between the handpicked heir of his socialist revolution and an opponent vowing change in the divided nation.
After a brief and bitter campaign, supporters of acting President Nicolas Maduro played military-style bugles to wake up people before dawn to vote in an election pitting him against opposition rival Henrique Capriles.
Casting himself as his mentor’s “son,” Maduro led opinion polls to complete his six-year term, promising to continue oil-funded policies that cut poverty from 50 to 29 percent with popular health, education and food programs.
But Capriles hopes that discontent over the nation’s soaring murder rate, chronic food shortages, high inflation and regular power outages will give him an upset victory after 14 years under Chavez.
Before dying, the late leader endorsed Maduro as his successor, and Chavistas chanted “Chavez, I swear, my vote is for Maduro!” throughout the campaign.
Maduro, meanwhile, sought to elevate Chavez as a saint-like figure, calling him “Christ the redeemer of the poor.”
From the Amazon region to the Caribbean coast and the capital’s hillside slums, voters cast ballots to decide the future of a nation sitting on the world’s biggest proven oil reserve.
People stood in line outside the school where Chavez used to vote in the poor January 23 neighborhood. A truck nearby played a recording of the late leader crooning to a patriotic song.
“The commitment to the revolution is very strong,” said Denis Oropeza, 33, a museum employee voting there as the truck played a recording of Chavez, made before cancer took his life, in which he asks Venezuelans to vote for Maduro.
“The people will massively go out and vote to defend his legacy,” Oropeza declared.
But in the eastern Caracas neighborhood known as a Capriles bastion, voters said they were fed up with violence that left 16,000 people dead last year and a weak economy that has people struggling to find butter and milk in grocery stores.
“I want change because the situation is not good. There’s no security, the country is divided in two,” said Pietro Bellacicco, 75, a retired agricultural worker. “I hope to see us united, all together again as Venezuelans.”
Chavez named Maduro — a former bus driver and union activist who rose to foreign minister and vice president — as his political heir in December before undergoing a final round of cancer surgery. He died on March 5 aged 58.
“We will break turnout records in our mobilized democracy,” Maduro wrote on Twitter.
Maduro rode a wave of grief over Chavez’s death throughout the campaign, culminating the day before the vote with a ceremony honoring the former colonel in the military barracks where he was laid rest.
Capriles accused the government of “abusing power, abusing state resources” by staging televised events up until the eve of the election even though official campaigning ended on Thursday.
“Let’s go vote! Hope, faith and courage,” Capriles wrote on Twitter.
Maduro and Capriles engaged in an acrimonious campaign marked by insults, government allegations of assassination plots against the acting leader and the virtual beatification of Chavez.
Maduro called his rival a “little bourgeois” while Capriles derided the tall, broad-shouldered acting president as a “bull-chicken.”
Capriles avoided criticizing Chavez, however, pledging to maintain his social “missions.” He lost to Chavez by 11 points in the October 7 presidential election — the opposition’s best ever showing against him.
“I’m not the opposition, I’m the solution,” said the 40-year-old Miranda state governor, who represents the youthful face of the once fractured opposition.
But he blamed the government for the nation’s economic woes and vowed to cut the “gift” to Cuba — a deal in which Caracas ships 100,000 barrels of oil per day while Havana sends doctors and other experts to Venezuela.
Opinion polls gave Maduro a lead of 10-20 points, though the last survey conducted by Datanalisis last week gave him a narrower, 9.7-point edge. The winner will be sworn in on Friday.
“The opposition was able to excite its people,” Ignacio Avalos, a sociology professor at Central University of Venezuela. “Maduro has two very important weapons in his favor: Chavez’s last wish and the state machinery.”