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.

Henrique Capriles Radonski, a centrist state governor, edged toward the still popular Chavez in final polls thanks to a vigorous campaign that united the opposition and made him its best chance of ending Chavez's 14-year rule.

Radonski was elected to run against Chavez as the representative of the Democratic Unity coalition, a collection of 30 parties that compose the bulk of Venezuela's opposition. Capriles' father was a Catholic of Sephardic Jewish descent. His mother's family was comprised of Eastern European Holocaust survivors. He does not hide his Jewish roots but considers himself a devout Catholic.

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.

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.

A study by Tel Aviv University’s Kantor Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism found that Chavez, who has ruled the country for the past 14 years, regularly “vilifies” his opponent Radonski, derisively referring to his Jewish roots.

“This is done in a variety of methods, such as defamation, intimidation and conspiracy theories, many of which portray Capriles as a Zionist agent, and by mixing classic and neo-anti-Semitism,” said the report, authored by Lidia Lerner, an expert on Latin America. “A Capriles victory, it is claimed, will inevitably lead to Zionist infiltration.”

Op-Eds warning of a “Zionist takeover” if Capriles wins repeatedly have appeared in government-controlled media since Radonski’s candidacy was announced in February, the report said. He also has been the subject of anti-Semitic cartoons.

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.

If Chavez wins, however, he can consolidate his control over Venezuela's economy and continue his support for leftist governments across Latin America, as well as allies farther afield such as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Syria's Bashar Assad, and Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus.

Chavez severed ties with Jerusalem in 2009.

Results are due any time starting late on Sunday evening.

JTA contributed to this report.

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