CARACAS — Venezuela's National Electoral Council has ordered an end to all campaign activities ahead of Sunday's presidential election. While President Hugo Chavez is still ahead in many polls, his opponent, Henrique Capriles, a former state governor, has steadily been gaining ground during the campaign.
President Chavez retains a loyal following among the country's poor, who have propelled him to easy victories in past elections. Venezuela has the world's biggest proven crude oil deposits, and during his almost 14 years in power, Chavez has used the country's oil wealth for programs to provide his political base with food subsidies and free housing and to reduce poverty, child mortality and illiteracy.
The 58-year-old leader has had cancer surgeries and chemotherapy beginning in 2011. Chavez says he is now cancer-free and has been out recently, looking healthy and actively campaigning.
Luis Vicente Leon, the director of a Venezuelan polling firm, says it is not only Chavez's popularity among the poor but also his manipulation of the electoral process, that give him a huge advantage in this election. He says Chavez has used government staff as campaign workers, commandeered free media broadcast time on a daily basis, filled the oversight body, the electoral college, with political supporters, and intimidated public sector workers to support him or face retribution.
He says such manipulation is contrary to democracy and obviously will have an impact on the election results.
Chavez's youthful rival, Henrique Capriles, has mounted a formidable campaign. The 40-year-old Capriles has vowed to unite the country, accusing the Venezuelan leader of being "sick with power" and dividing the country. Capriles has portrayed himself as a more centrist figure, friendly to business but supporting many of the popular social programs instituted by Chavez. And Capriles has repeatedly criticized the president over the country's regular power outages, food shortages and high murder rate, which has risen to 50 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants.
David Myers, a professor of political science at Pennsylvania State University, says one major advantage for Capriles is that he has been able to bring together the various parties opposed to Chavez. He says many in the opposition believe this is their last, best chance to contain Chavez's Bolivaran style of socialism.
“The idea is, you know, if we don't beat him or we can't stake out something that we can hold in this election, the transformation that the Bolivarans are thinking about may go beyond the tipping point where we can change anything," said Myers.
Around 19 million voters are expected to participate in Sunday's election. Some 140,000 troops have been deployed to prevent violence, and alcohol sales have been banned until Monday.
David Smilde, a sociologist at the University of Georgia, says during this election, there will be no truly independent international observers. The groups invited to monitor the election, like UNASUR, will be operating under a number of restrictions.
“They don't have autonomy of movement. They can't go where they decide they want to go. They do not have independent access to the data. And they can't make independent proclamations. So it is not observation. Often time they don't even speak Spanish. It's what some people have called revolutionary tourism," said Smilde.
Analysts are predicting a high turnout in this closely contested race.