* Chavez faces biggest test in 14 years from young rival
* Venezuelans jittery before Sunday's presidential vote
* Cuba and other Latin American leftists watch closely
By Helen Murphy and Andrew Cawthorne
CARACAS, Oct 5 Venezuelans packed supermarkets
on Friday to stock up on food and other essentials in case of
trouble around Sunday's presidential vote, which was shaping up
as the biggest electoral challenge of Hugo Chavez's 14-year
Energetic young state governor Henrique Capriles has gained
momentum in the closing days of the campaign and he seemed to
have the opposition's best chance of unseating Chavez since the
socialist president came to power in 1999.
Many among the South American oil exporting nation's 29
million people are fretting that tight results could bring
accusations of fraud and protests in an already highly polarized
society awash with illegal arms.
"I have to think about my family, there could be violence,
anything is possible in this country," said housewife Dayana
Alvarez, 38, among scores of shoppers buying cooking oil,
powdered milk, candles and flour in a teeming Caracas
Some stores and pharmacies have run short of staples like
pasta, coffee, toilet paper, rice and milk.
"I've been buying a little every day. You have to be
prepared. Who knows what is going to happen?" Maria Eugenia
Maduro, a 38-year-old administrator at a computer company, said
at another store in a wealthy district where Capriles' support
is strong and nervousness over potential trouble is high.
In the run-up to the election, three opposition activists
were shot dead at a rally, and there were isolated outbreaks of
gunfire and rock-throwing at some events. But there was none of
the sustained violence some had feared the campaign could bring.
Both sides have voiced confidence in the electronic ballot
system, will be sending witnesses to the 13,700 voting centers,
and have said they will accept the election board's ruling.
"We have been and will continue to be respectful of the
established processes," Capriles' campaign coordinator, Leopoldo
Lopez, told reporters on Friday. "We call for peace and
Yet with a tight result likely the potential for disputes
grew. Supporters of either candidate may be reluctant to accept
No formal international monitors are allowed, though the
UNASUR group of South American nations and U.S.-based Carter
Center will have teams in Venezuela watching.
Chavez, 58, has repeatedly said the opposition is preparing
violence to swing the result, while his most strident critics
say he may balk at handing over power should he lose.
A majority of the nation's half a dozen or so main pollsters
put Chavez ahead, but the 40-year-old Capriles' numbers have
been creeping up, and two pollsters give him a slight lead.
Illustrating the uncertainty over the vote, two Wall Street
banks gave different views on Friday. Credit Suisse said Chavez
had the advantage and Barclays said a Capriles win was now
Capriles' aides are convinced he has had a late surge which,
combined with what they say is a "fear factor" of many voters
afraid of expressing open opposition to Chavez on concerns of
losing their jobs, mean there is a real chance for an upset.
"President Chavez, I thank you for all you have done well.
And for all you have done badly, history will judge you,"
Capriles told hundreds of thousands of supporters at his closing
rally in Lara state on Thursday night.
"Your cycle has finished."
Making a mammoth personal effort given his recent cancer
surgery, Chavez wound up his campaign at the same time speaking
to red-clad supporters at a similarly vast rally in Caracas.
"The very life of Venezuela is at stake," he roared in a
typically emotional final appeal.
Sunday's ballot is a critical not just for Venezuelans, but
also for various other nations around Latin America where Chavez
has helped bolster left-wing governments from Cuba to Bolivia
with cheap oil and other aid.
Though distracted by its own upcoming presidential election
in November, the U.S. government will also be quietly hoping to
see the back of its most vociferous critic in the region.
If he wins, Chavez promises to deepen his socialist crusade
in Venezuela, meaning there may be more nationalizations on the
cards for the health, bank or food sectors. The possibility of a
recurrence of cancer will, however, hang over him.
The former soldier, who survived a short-lived coup in 2002,
has developed a near Messianic following by casting himself as
an heir to 19th century liberation hero Simon Bolivar while
pushing billions in oil revenue into anti-poverty programs.
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.
Capriles, who admires Brazil's model of respect for private
enterprise with strong welfare protection, has run a marathon
eight-month campaign of house-by-house visits that have
galvanized the historically fractured opposition like never
He is promising attention to grassroots problems like crime,
unemployment and shoddy services.
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