Reuters, AFP / Getty Images
Venezuela's opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles (left) and President Hugo Chavez attend campaign rallies on Thursday.
By NBC News wire services
CARACAS - Venezuelans vote on Sunday with President Hugo Chavez facing the biggest electoral challenge yet to his socialist rule from a young rival tapping into discontent over crime and cronyism.
The vote pitting Chavez against challenger Henrique Capriles is an all-or-nothing contest between two camps that deeply distrust each other and question whether the other side will respect the results of the election.
The stakes couldn't be higher.
If Chavez wins, he will have a free hand to dominate Venezuela for six more years on top of the 14 years he has already been in office, letting him push for an even bigger state role in the economy and cement his legacy.
If Capriles wins, it will likely mean an abrupt shift in foreign policy, an eventual loosening of state economic controls and an increase in private investment -- though a tense transition would likely follow until the inauguration in January.
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Some Venezuelans were nervous about what might happen if disputes erupted over the election.
"Nobody trusts the other people, especially when it's their political rivals," said Maria Villareal, a teacher and Capriles supporter who stocked up on groceries Saturday. "We're in a divided country, and I think Chavez is the one responsible."
She and other critics of the president say Chavez has inflamed divisions by labeling his opponents "fascists," "Yankees" and "neo-Nazis." During Chavez's final rally Thursday in Caracas, he shouted to the crowd: "We're going to give the bourgeoisie a beating!"
David Hernandez, a Chavez supporter, agreed the mood was tense, but he blamed the opposition.
The life of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez from his rise as a lieutenant colonel after his failed coup attempt in 1992.
"Chavez is going to win and Capriles will have to accept his defeat," Hernandez said, standing next to his parked motorcycle on a downtown street. "If Capriles doesn't accept his defeat, there could be problems."
Violence flared sporadically during the campaign, including shootings and rock throwing during rallies and political caravans. Two Capriles supporters were shot to death in the western state of Barinas last weekend.
Close in the polls
Capriles, a centrist state governor, edged toward the still popular Chavez in final polls thanks to a vigorous campaign that united the opposition.
Chavez has used record oil revenue to support ideological allies around the world, while preaching a fiercely anti-U.S. line, so the election will be watched eagerly from the United States to Belarus and Iran.
Across the poor neighborhoods where Chavez, a flamboyant former soldier, draws his most fervent following, loyalists prepared to blow bugles and trumpets in a predawn wake-up call for voters.
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Opposition sympathizers banged pots and pans in a protest against Chavez on Saturday night, creating a racket in the upscale neighborhoods of eastern Caracas. In the city center, which is more pro-government, the noise was drowned out by supporters playing his campaign music and shouting his name.
"I ask political actors from the left, right and center to prepare emotionally to accept tomorrow's results. It's not going to be the end of the world for anyone," Chavez said at a last-minute news conference at the presidential palace.
The 58-year-old president staged a remarkable comeback from cancer this year. But he could not match the energy of past campaigns - or the pace set by his 40-year-old basketball-loving opponent.
With just days left, candidates make final appeals ahead of Venezuela's election
Most well-known pollsters put Chavez in front. But two have Capriles just ahead, and his numbers have crept up in others.
There is a risk of violence if the result is contested.
There will be no formal international observers, although Venezuela invited a delegation of the UNASUR group of South American nations to "accompany" the vote.
Local groups will be monitoring and both sides say they trust the electronic, fingerprint vote system. The opposition says it will have witnesses at all of the 13,810 polling centers from tiny Amazon villages to tough Caracas slums.
In a politically polarized country where firearms are common and the murder rate is one of the highest in the world, tensions have risen alongside weeks of tough campaign rhetoric, and both camps are vowing to "defend" their votes.
Chavez accuses the opposition of plotting violence and planning to "reject the people's triumph" when he wins, but says that effort will be defeated. Some opposition activists fear he could refuse to step down if the result goes against him.
Victory for Capriles would remove the most vocal critic of the United States in Latin America, and could lead to new deals for oil companies in an OPEC nation that pumps about 3 million barrels a day and boasts the world's biggest crude reserves.
Capriles wants to copy Brazil's model of respect for private enterprise with strong social welfare programs if he is elected -- but he would face enormous challenges from day one.
For a start, he would not take office until January 2013, meaning Chavez loyalists might throw obstacles in the way of the transition.
He also would have to develop a plan to tackle entrenched high inflation, price distortions and an over-valued currency, while surely butting heads with the National Assembly, judiciary and state oil company PDVSA -- all dominated by Chavez loyalists.
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Another big task would be to figure out the real level of state finances. Last month, a Reuters investigation found that half of public investment went into a secretive off-budget fund controlled by Chavez and had no oversight by Congress.
The president has denounced his foes as traitors and told voters they plan to cancel his signature social "missions," which range from subsidized food stores to programs that build houses and pay cash stipends to poor women with children.
Tens of thousands of new homes have been handed over this year, often to tearful Chavez supporters at televised events.
Voting runs from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. (6:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. ET), although polls will stay open later if there are lines.
Results are due any time starting late on Sunday evening.
The electoral authority says it will only announce the results once there is an "irreversible trend" and parties are barred from declaring victory in advance of that announcement.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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