CARACAS (Reuters) - The late Hugo Chavez’s self-declared socialist revolution will be put to the test at a presidential election on Sunday that pits his chosen successor against a younger rival promising change in the nation he polarized.
Most opinion polls give his protege, acting President Nicolas Maduro, a strong lead thanks to Chavez’s endorsement and the surge of grief and sympathy over his death from cancer last month.
Maduro, a burly 50-year-old former bus driver, is promising to be faithful to Chavez’s socialist policies and he has copied his former boss’ fierce rhetoric throughout the campaign.
“Do you want one of the rancid bourgeois to win?” Maduro shouted at one of his closing rallies. “Or do you want a worker, a son of Chavez, a patriot and a revolutionary? You decide!”
Waving posters of his late boss, the crowd sang back the campaign slogan: “Chavez, I swear to you, I’ll vote for Maduro!”
Opposition candidate Henrique Capriles, the 40-year-old governor of Miranda state, says Venezuelans need a change from the divisive politics of Chavez’s 14-year rule, and he is hoping a late surge will turn things in his favour.
At stake is control of the world’s biggest crude oil reserves, economic aid to a host of left-leaning governments around Latin America, and the legacy of “Chavismo” socialism.
At each of his campaign events, Maduro has played a video of Chavez giving him his blessing in an emotional last speech to the OPEC nation of 29 million people before he succumbed to cancer on March 5.
If Maduro wins, he will face big challenges from day one as he seeks to control the disparate ruling coalition without his predecessor’s dominant personality or the robust state finances that helped the ailing Chavez win re-election just last October.
Capriles would face an even tougher landscape if he wins as he would have to try to win over Chavez’s millions of ferociously loyal supporters, including suspicious employees at state-run companies that have long been tied to Chavez’s movement.
At every rally, Capriles has rejected Maduro’s claims that he plans to cancel the oil-funded social welfare projects, or slum “missions”, that were a high-profile cornerstone of the late president’s popularity with the poor.
Capriles has drawn blood with scathing attacks on Maduro and others whom he denounces as “skin-deep revolutionaries.” He accuses them of betraying Chavez’s legacy by filling their pockets while paying only lip service to his ideology.
Maduro, meanwhile, paints his rival as a pampered rich kid who represents a wealthy and venal Venezuelan elite - and their “imperial” financial backers in Washington.
A descendant of European Jews on his mother’s side, Capriles does come from a wealthy family, but has sought to project a man-of-the-people image riding into slums on his motorbike and nearly always wearing a baseball cap.
Maduro, a former member of a rock band and a union activist, rose to be Chavez’s foreign minister and vice president, but has been playing up his modest roots at rallies, frequently calling onto stage fellow workers whom he recognizes.
During a bitter, lightning campaign punctuated by highly personalized attacks from both candidates, Maduro has stressed his close ties to Chavez at every turn. He even said he was visited by the late leader’s spirit in the form a little bird.
In another surreal turn, Maduro also warned anyone thinking of voting for his rival that they would bring down a centuries-old curse upon themselves, playing on the fertile mix of animist and Christian beliefs in Venezuela’s plains and jungles.
In a nation where Chavez’s confrontational rhetoric helped fuel deep mistrust between his supporters and the opposition, both political camps have repeatedly accused the other of dirty tricks and fomenting violent plans.
Loyal “Chavistas” often accuse the opposition of plotting a re-run of a brief coup against Chavez a decade ago, while the Capriles camp says the government is shamelessly using state resources to try to ensure Maduro’s triumph.
Maduro has accused the opposition of planning to use mercenaries to kill him and sabotage the electricity grid, and also accused the U.S. government of plotting to kill Capriles and then blame it on his administration to sow chaos.
Capriles says those kind of shrill claims are an echo of the worst of Chavez’s rule, and only aim to spread distrust and fear. Chavez himself often unveiled supposed assassination plans targeting him, which critics dismissed as cynical efforts to keep voters on a war footing and distract them from daily worries such as violent crime, inflation and corruption.
Capriles also sees the hand of Cuba’s Castro brothers - close allies of the late Chavez - in Maduro’s campaign.
“You can win the elections in Havana. I‘m going to win them here in Venezuela,” Capriles said in one of his final speeches.
“I‘m not the opposition, I‘m the solution! ... I ask the late president’s supporters to vote for me. Nicolas is not Chavez. Capriles is the guarantee that this country advances.”
He is offering a Brazil-style model that blends pro-business policies with strong spending on social welfare projects, and he says Maduro’s tenure as acting leader has only added to people’s problems with a devaluation and new currency controls.
Capriles says that if he wins he will stop “gifting” Venezuela’s oil wealth to other nations, and will cool ties with distant Chavez-era allies such as Syria, Belarus and Iran.
The U.S. government will be watching the vote closely in the hope of better relations after years of tensions with Chavez.
Despite being often out of sight during his illness, Chavez easily defeated Capriles in last October’s vote. It was his fourth presidential election victory, demonstrating the enduring support for his policies two decades after he burst onto Venezuela’s political scene with a failed coup.
Many supporters say they will stay true to the dying wish of their “commander” and vote for Maduro, whatever they may feel about how he stacks up as successor to the towering Chavez.
“It’s a question of loyalty. It doesn’t matter who the candidate is,” said Luis Vegas, a 23-year-old motorcycle courier from the huge Petare slum in Caracas. “On Sunday, we will show our support for Chavez and continue defending his revolution.”
Editing by Andrew Cawthorne, Kieran Murray and Lisa Shumaker