CARACAS (Reuters) - Hugo Chavez loyalists celebrated on Saturday a milestone in the late leader’s socialist revolution ahead of Venezuela’s presidential election, irking the opposition that complained of a campaign tipped in favor of the government.
Saturday marked the 11th anniversary of Chavez’s dramatic return to power after a two-day coup tacitly backed by the United States. The event galvanized support for the former paratrooper and prompted him to push ahead with increasingly radical policies that further polarized Venezuela.
Venezuelan state television broadcast a barrage of programs glorifying Chavez and portrayed the opposition candidate in Sunday’s election, Henrique Capriles, as the political heir of a “right-wing oligarchy” that orchestrated the 2002 coup.
Pro-Chavez militias also gathered in commemoration at the Caracas military museum where the president’s coffin is on display. That event ended up giving government candidate Nicolas Maduro more valuable air time despite a ban on formal campaigning in the final two days before the vote.
One by one, the acting president decorated each member of the so-called Bolivarian militias, armed civilian groups that Chavez created in 2009 to help defend his self-proclaimed revolution and prevent a repeat of the 2002 coup.
To shouts of “Chavez lives,” a somber Maduro said: “Let’s honor his memory, his legacy.”
Frustrated by what it sees as an unfair use of state funds to buoy Maduro’s candidacy, the opposition lodged a formal complaint with the electoral authority alleging that state TV channel Venezolana de Television (VTV) was violating election laws by broadcasting “biased political content.”
“It is unacceptable that an official channel breaks the rules,” Capriles’ campaign team said in a statement that called on election authorities to take immediate action against VTV.
In its complaint, the opposition also alleged that Argentine soccer great Diego Maradona had flouted Venezuelan election laws by publicly endorsing Maduro, who is favored to win on Sunday.
Maradona, who is well-known for his leftist politics and was close to Chavez, flew in on Thursday to join Maduro in his final campaign rally and spent much of Friday by his side.
A representative from Venezuela’s Election Council said it had not commented on the opposition complaint.
Meanwhile, VTV broadcast live footage of Foreign Minister Elias Jaua touring an apparently abandoned construction site of an athletic complex in Miranda, the state that the sports-loving Capriles governs, warning viewers that only a Maduro victory could ensure prosperity for all Venezuelans.
“This is another white elephant,” said Jaua, who ran for governor of Miranda last December but lost to Capriles. “Tomorrow is a historical day in which we’ll vote to strengthen democracy and our revolution.”
After formal campaigning came to a close on Thursday night, the 40-year-old Capriles relaxed the next day by playing basketball in Petare, the largest slum in Caracas. He has campaigned on an image of youth and energy, almost always sporting a Venezuela baseball cap.
The campaign to succeed Chavez, who died on March 5 after a two-year battle with cancer, has been especially acrimonious, with both sides spouting harsh language and personal insults.
At stake is control of the world’s largest oil reserves, economic aid to a host of left-leaning governments in Latin America, and the future of what Chavez called “21st century socialism,” a mix of hard-left politics, generous government spending on the poor and state control over the economy.
The Maduro camp has relentlessly accused Capriles of being a spoiled rich kid who plans to dismantle the oil-funded social welfare programs that made Chavez a hero to the poor, a claim the opposition has repeatedly denied.
For his part, Capriles has described Maduro, a 50-year-old former bus driver, as a “poor imitation” of Chavez and a political novice without a plan to address problems such as rampant violent crime, high inflation and a slowing economy.
To be sure, both candidates have offered few specifics on the policies they would adopt as president, leaving many Venezuelans to lament the lack of a serious political debate.
“We haven’t talked seriously about the grave problems in our economy. We don’t really know how we are going to solve the crime problem. We haven’t discussed the militia, education, or our crumbling infrastructure,” wrote Juan Nagel, a contributor to the Caracas Chronicles, a prominent political blog that sympathizes with the opposition.
Polls open on Sunday at 6 a.m. (1030 GMT) and voting will run until 6 p.m. (2230 GMT), though it could drag on later if there are still lines. Results are expected on Sunday night.
Additional reporting by Deisy Buitrago; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Xavier Briand