CARACAS (AFP) – Venezuelans headed to the polls Sunday to elect Hugo Chavez’s successor, with his political heir, Nicolas Maduro, hoping to continue his socialist revolution and rival Henrique Capriles vowing change.
One month after Chavez died, supporters of acting President Maduro played military-style bugles to wake up people before dawn and voters soon formed lines, in the capital’s hillside slums and its wealthier districts.
Riding a wave of sympathy over his mentor’s death, Maduro led opinion polls as he promised to continue the oil-funded policies that cut poverty from 50 to 29 percent through popular health, education and food programs.
People stood in line outside the school where Chavez used to vote in the poor January 23 neighborhood, with a truck nearby playing 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.
“The people will massively go out and vote to defend his legacy,” he said.
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.
In the eastern Caracas neighborhood known as a Capriles bastion, voters said they were fed up with runaway crime and a weak economy in a nation sitting on the world’s biggest proven oil reserves.
“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, who casts himself as Chavez’s “son” and “apostle,” wrote on Twitter.
Late Saturday, Maduro presided over a ceremony in the old military barracks where Chavez was laid to rest to commemorate the late leader’s return to power after a his brief ouster in a coup on April 11-13, 2002.
“You know that comandante Chavez gave me a difficult job and I accepted it like a son. I feel at peace,” Maduro, 50, told members of a civilian militia formed by Chavez after the coup.
“I will be loyal to him until the last moment.”
Capriles meanwhile 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.
During the campaign, Capriles avoided criticizing Chavez and pledged 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.
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.”
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 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.”