* Socialist leader faces biggest electoral test in 14 years
* Chavez wants new term to deepen socialism
* Opposition's Capriles promises security and jobs
By Brian Ellsworth and Mario Naranjo
CARACAS, Oct 4 Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez
faces the toughest election of his 14-year rule on Sunday in a
vote pitting his charisma and oil-financed largesse against
fresh-faced challenger Henrique Capriles' promise of jobs, safer
streets and an end to cronyism.
Chavez, 58, staged a remarkable comeback from cancer this
year and wants a new six-year term to consolidate his
self-styled socialist revolution in the OPEC nation.
Capriles, a boyish 40-year-old state governor, has run a
marathon eight-month campaign of house-by-house visits that have
galvanized the historically fractured opposition and set up its
best shot at the presidency since Chavez's election in 1998.
Defeat for Chavez would defenestrate Latin America's leader
of anti-U.S. sentiment while potentially boosting oil companies'
access to the world's largest crude reserves.
Victory would allow Chavez to continue a wave of
nationalizations and consolidate control over the economy,
though a recurrence of his cancer would weaken his leadership
and possibly give the opposition another chance.
In torrential rain, red-shirted supporters of the president
filled much of downtown Caracas on Thursday for his final rally.
"Chavez will not fail the Venezuelan people," the president
said, soaked to the skin in a dark raincoat, on a stage before a
sea of fans. "You know that my loyalty to the people almost
brought me to the point of death. This is my path."
The former military officer, who survived a short-lived coup
in 2002, has developed a near cult-like following by casting
himself as a messianic reincarnation of 19th century liberation
hero Simon Bolivar while pushing billions of dollars in oil
revenue into social programs.
Most best-known pollsters put Chavez in front. But two have
Capriles just ahead, and his numbers have edged up in others.
The opposition leader has had more momentum in the final
days of the campaign and he is confidently predicting victory.
"The time has come to leave the past behind," the opposition
leader told a cheering crowd on Thursday, wrapping up a grueling
months-long series of rallies across the country.
The vote is also a cliffhanger for other left-wing
governments in the region, from Cuba to Ecuador, who depend on
Chavez's discounted oil sales and generous financial assistance.
Seamlessly flipping from jocular prankster to blustering
anti-capitalist crusader, Chavez's stories of his poor but happy
childhood in a small village have helped him create an emotional
bond with poor Venezuelans who see him as one of the family.
For nearly a decade, he has won over voters with free health
clinics, subsidized groceries and new universities.
Over the last year he launched programs to give pensions to
the elderly, stipends to poor mothers, and tens of thousands of
new homes were handed over on live TV to tearful supporters.
Everywhere Chavez has gone on the campaign trail,
supplicants have shouted to him asking for help getting a home
or a job, or thrust hand-written letters at his staff.
"I work for the state and I'm offended that the loser
(Capriles) says we're made to attend and made to wear red!" said
Paulo Garralaga, at Thursday's giant rally in Caracas. "I came
to support Chavez and to tell him I'm going to vote for him."
Yet day-to-day issues are overshadowing ideological fervor.
Nationalizations have weakened private enterprise and given
party apparatchiks growing control over jobs. Weak law
enforcement, dysfunctional courts and plentiful arms have made
Venezuela more violent than some war-zones. Frequent blackouts
are an annoying reminder of squandered oil income.
"Each one of you should make a list of the problems that you
have, and ask yourself, how many of those problems has this
famous revolution solved for you?" the wiry and sports-loving
Capriles intoned at one of his final rallies.
The business-friendly law graduate easily won an opposition
primary election in February and has united anti-Chavez parties
like no one before him. His rallies have been notably more
energetic and swollen with ecstatic fans in the final weeks.
Sporadic violence has dogged the campaign, with three
Capriles activists shot dead last weekend, demonstrating the
volatile atmosphere and potential for violence around the vote.
Capriles has promised to shed Chavez's doctrinaire vision of
a state-led economy for a pragmatic balance between social
welfare and free enterprise. He calls himself an admirer of
Brazil's market-friendly left, which has pulled close to 35
million people into the middle class over a decade.
Chavez has made ample use of state resources to bolster his
campaign, speaking for hours about the virtues of socialism in
"chain" broadcasts that all public access channels are required
to run. The electoral authority has demurely declined to
regulate such broadcasts, calling them "institutional" messages.
Despite complaints of Chavez's advantages, opposition
leaders say they see little risk of fraud during the electronic
balloting itself. There will be no formal international
observation of the vote, though local groups will be present and
voting centers will have witnesses from both sides.
Chavez's frequent vote victories over the last 14 years have
undermined shrill opposition criticism that he is a dictator.
But he has never had to hand over power. Though he accepted
defeat in a 2007 referendum on his proposed overhaul of the
constitution, in less than a year he used special decree powers
to make many of the changes that voters had rejected.
A win for Chavez could prompt a sell-off of Venezuelan
bonds, which have risen steadily since June and jumped in recent
weeks as investors bet on a possible Capriles win.
Venezuela's heavy borrowing has made its debt among the most
actively traded emerging market bonds - creating an odd romance
between Wall Street and one of the world's most virulent critics
of capital markets.
Capriles is promising to improve the country's finances by
cutting wasteful expenditures and halting politically motivated
gifts to allied left-wing and anti-American nations.
"President Chavez, I thank you for what you have been able
to do," the opposition leader said at his final campaign rally,
in Lara state, in a rare direct use of his opponent's name.
"With the greatest respect: the time has come to move
forward, and you will not be able to stop the people's advance."
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