, CARACAS, Apr 14 – Venezuelans will elect Hugo Chavez’s successor on Sunday in a duel between the heir of the late leader’s socialist revolution, Nicolas Maduro, and an opposition vowing change in the divided nation.
One month after Chavez died, his leftist legacy goes on the line after a swift but bitter race between Maduro, the acting president who casts himself as the late leader’s “son,” and opposition leader Henrique Capriles.
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.
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.
Maduro has Chavez’s well-organized electoral machine behind him, with supporters expected to wake up voters before dawn by playing military-style bugles across the Andean nation. Polls open at 1030 GMT and close at 2230 GMT.
The opposition accused the government of abusing its power by unfairly using state resources for Maduro’s candidacy while flooding the airwaves well after official campaigning ended on Thursday.
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.
“You know that comandante Chavez gave me a difficult job and I accepted it like a son. I feel at peace,” Maduro, 50, said during a ceremony late Saturday at an old military barracks where the former colonel was laid to rest.
“I will be loyal to him until the last moment,” Maduro told members of a militia formed by Chavez after he was briefly ousted in a coup spearheaded by business leaders on April 11-13, 2002.
Capriles accused the government of “abusing power, abusing state resources” by staging events up until the eve of the election.
During the campaign, Capriles stepped lightly around Chavez’s legacy, pledging to maintain his social “missions.” He lost to Chavez by 11 points in the October 7 presidential election — the opposition’s best score 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 transformation of Chavez into a saintly figure.
Maduro called his rival a “little bourgeois” while Capriles derided the tall, broad-shouldered acting president as a “bull-chicken.”
Opinion polls gave Maduro leads ranging between 10 and 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 favour: Chavez’s last wish and the state machinery,” he said.
The phrase “Chavez, I swear, my vote is for Maduro” was recited in songs and rallies by Chavistas.
“My vote will be for Maduro, but my heart will be with Chavez,” said Alejandro Almeida, 67, a retired factory worker who was among a group of Chavistas gathered under a rent tent famous for being a bastion of Chavez support in Plaza Bolivar.
Opposition supporters say Maduro would continue policies that they deem disastrous for the economy of a nation that, despite its oil wealth, imports most of its food.
“When I look at Venezuela, with all that oil, and see what is going on around me today, it makes me so terribly disappointed,” said Alexis Chacon, 74, who runs a chemical company. “The Hugo Chavez nightmare has sunk this country.”