(photo credit: AP)
President Hugo Chavez is predicting a crushing victory Sunday as he seeks another six-year term in an election that could further entrench Latin America's most defiant voice against US foreign policy.
Chavez leads in various opinion polls over tough-talking former Zulia state Gov. Manuel Rosales, who nevertheless has galvanized the opposition by promising to unseat a leader he accuses of steering Venezuela toward Cuba-style one-man rule.
"This is our last chance. This is the last time we can stop him from ruining this country," said Margarita Nunez, a 23-year-old university student who says she fears what radical plans Chavez may have in mind. "If he wins, I have to find a way to leave, go somewhere."
Chavez has won loyal support from the poor by using the country's oil wealth to fund multibillion-dollar (-euro) programs offering subsidized food, free university education, cash benefits for single mothers and other aid.
"Chavez was sent here by God," said Rosa Gonzalez, a 41-year-old street vendor. "He knows what it is to be poor. He suffered it as a boy, and that's why he understands us and tries to help us."
Conflict and ambition have marked the rise of Chavez, 52, from a boy selling homemade desserts in a dusty backwater to a failed coup commander in 1992 and now a leader who if re-elected promises to set the tone of politics in Latin America for years to come.
He has called US President George W. Bush the devil, allied himself with Iran and affected election races all over Latin America while clashing at home with business leaders and opposition-aligned media.
Since he was voted into office in 1998 on a wave of discontent with Venezuela's corrupt political elite, Chavez has increasingly dominated all branches of government. His allies now control congress, state offices and the judiciary.
Loyalists helped him survive a 2002 coup along with a subsequent general strike and 2004 recall referendum.
Rosales, a cattle rancher and state governor who stepped down temporarily to run against Chavez, has rebuilt the opposition from its defeat in the 2004 referendum. His campaign focused on issues such as rampant crime and corruption, which polls have shown are vulnerabilities for Chavez.
An independent AP-Ipsos poll last month found Chavez with a large lead - a result echoed in several recent surveys. Rosales supporters cite other polls that predict a tight vote.
The tone of campaigning has been decidedly hostile, with Chavez calling Rosales a pawn of Washington and brushing aside his opponent's proposal that the two hold a debate.
Rosales has warned his supporters will be on alert for fraud, while Chavez has accused the opposition of plotting to undermine the vote's legitimacy.
Fearing street protests or unrest, shoppers have packed grocery stores in the past few days to stock up on supplies.
More than 125,000 soldiers, including some 18,000 armed reservists, were deployed nationwide to provide security and safeguard voting machines and ballots, officials said. Security also was tightened at oil installations.
About 16 million Venezuelans are registered to vote and will use electronic voting machines at more than 11,000 polling centers across the South American country. The vote is being monitored by observers from the European Union, the Carter Center and the Organization of American States.
Representatives of both the Chavez and Rosales campaigns also were to monitor polling centers and a participate in a post-vote audit of 54 percent of ballot boxes containing paper vote slips generated by the machines.
The opposition accuses Chavez of waging an unfair propaganda campaign by appearing constantly on state TV. Some also have accused the government of pressuring public employees, who number about 2 million, to show support for Chavez.
"This is not just any election," Rosales said recently. "We're going to choose between two paths _ one side that believes in democracy ... and the other that wants to establish in Venezuela a Castro-Cuban communist system that strips the people of freedom."
Chavez insists he is a democrat and will respect private property, though he has said he might nationalize utilities and shut down private TV stations critical of him, and has already increased state control over the key oil industry.
An unapologetic admirer of Castro, Chavez has worried some by his unabashed ambitions to govern Venezuela until 2021 or longer. Chavez has said he would convene a commission upon re-election to propose constitutional reforms, likely including an end to presidential term limits.