Caracas, Venezuela • President Hugo Chavez’s crusade to transform Venezuela into a socialist state, which has bitterly divided the nation, was put to the stiffest electoral test of his nearly 14 years in power on Sunday in a closely fought presidential election.
Both camps said turnout was high, with millions of Venezuelans casting ballots. Long lines formed at many polling centers, with queues of hundreds of voters snaking along sidewalks and around blocks in many parts of Caracas.
Chavez’s challenger, Henrique Capriles, has united the opposition in a contest between two sides that distrust each other so deeply there were concerns whether a close election result would be respected.
“We will recognize the results, whatever they are,” Chavez told reporters after casting his vote in Caracas.
Chavez was greeted at the polling center by American actor Danny Glover and Guatemalan Nobel Peace Prize laureate Rigoberta Menchu. He said he was pleased to see a “massive turnout.”
The stakes couldn’t be higher.
If Chavez wins a new six-year term, he gets a free hand to push for an even bigger state role in the economy, further limit dissent and continue to befriend rivals of the United States.
With a Capriles win, an abrupt foreign policy shift can be expected, including halting preferential oil deals with allies such as Cuba, along with a loosening of state economic controls and an increase in private investment. A tense transition would likely follow until the January inauguration because Chavez’s political machine thoroughly controls the wheels of government.
Some Venezuelans were nervous about what might happen if disputes erupt over the election’s announced outcome.
“There’s a little anxiety on one side and also on the other,” said Deyanira Duarte, a housewife who voted for Capriles in downtown Caracas. She said she was worried about what could happen if there were a dispute.
Others said they were simply pleased to be out backing their candidate.
Carlos Julio Silva, a bodyguard employed by a private security company, said whatever his faults, Chavez deserves re-election for helping people with programs including free medical care and public housing.
“There is corruption, there’s plenty of bureaucracy, but the people have never had a leader who cared about this country,” Silva said after voting for Chavez at a school in the Caracas slum of Petare. “That’s why the people are going to re-elect Hugo Rafael Chavez Frias.”
Chavez’s critics say the president has inflamed divisions by labeling his opponents “fascists,” ‘‘Yankees” and “neo-Nazis,” while Chavez backers allege Capriles would halt generous government programs that assist the poor.
During Chavez’s final rally Thursday in Caracas, he shouted to the crowd: “We’re going to give the bourgeoisie a beating!”
Reveille blared from sound trucks around the capital to awaken voters on Sunday morning, and the bugle call was later replaced by folk music mixed with a recording of Chavez’s voice saying “those who love the homeland come with me.” At many polling places, voters started lining up hours before polls opened at dawn.
“I’m really tired of all this polarization,” said Lissette Garcia, a 39-year-old clothes seller and Capriles supporter who voted Sunday in the affluent Caracas district of Las Mercedes. “I want to reconnect with all my friends who are ‘Chavistas.’”
Some said they waited in line for more than four hours to vote, while in other areas the lines moved more quickly.
Violence flared sporadically during the campaign, including shootings and rock-throwing during rallies and political caravans. Two Capriles supporters were shot to death in the western state of Barinas last weekend.
Troops were dispatched across Venezuela to guard thousands of voting centers Sunday.
Defense Minister Henry Rangel Silva said as he voted that all had been calm in the morning and he hoped that would continue. He said if any groups try to “disturb order, they should know there is an armed force prepared and equipped and trained... to put down any attempt at disturbances.”
He didn’t identify the groups to which he was referring.
Chavez held an impromptu news conference Saturday night, and when asked about the possibility of disputes over the vote, he said he expected both sides to accept the result. He says he has successfully emerged from about a year of cancer treatment.
“It’s a mature, democratic country where the institutions work, where we have one of the best electoral systems in the world,” Chavez told reporters at the presidential palace.
But he also said he hoped no one would try to use the vote to play a “destabilizing game.” If they do, he said, “we’ll be alert to neutralize them.”
His opponents mounted a noisy protest in Caracas and other major cities on Saturday night, beating pots and pans from the windows of their homes to show displeasure with Chavez — and also their hopes for change. Drivers on downtown streets honked horns, joining the din.
The 40-year-old Capriles, a wiry former governor affectionately called “Skinny” by supporters, has infused the opposition with new optimism, and opinion polls pointed to him giving Chavez his closest election.
Some recent polls showed Chavez with a lead of about 10 percentage points, while others put the two candidates about even.
“Chavez is going to fight until his last breath. He doesn’t know how to do anything else,” said Antonio Padron, a bank employee backing the president.
Padron expressed optimism that the 58-year-old Chavez would win, noting the leader has survived a fight with cancer that has included surgery, chemotherapy and radiation treatment.
But Padron predicted a close finish: “It’s a tough fight. The opposition has never been this strong.”
Chavez won the last presidential vote in 2006 with 63 percent of the vote.
A former army paratroop commander first elected in 1999, Chavez has presided over an oil boom and has spent billions of dollars on government social programs ranging from cash benefits for single mothers to free education.
But he has suffered declining support due to one of the world’s highest murder rates, 18 percent inflation, a deteriorating electrical grid and a bloated government accused of endemic corruption and mismanagement.
While his support has slipped at home, Chavez has also seen his international influence ebb since he emerged in the mid-2000s as leader of a like-minded club of newly elected Latin American leftist presidents.
“I want to tell President Chavez, I want to tell him his cycle is over,” Capriles said at his final campaign rally Thursday.
Capriles says Chavez has stirred up hatred, hobbled the economy by expropriating private businesses and squandered oil wealth. He criticized Chavez’s preferential deals supplying oil to allies, including one that lets Cuba pay with the services of Cuban doctors.
“We aren’t going to finance the political model that exists in Cuba,” Capriles said in a TV interview last week. “But we aren’t going to break off relations with Cuba.”
Chavez accumulated near-absolute power over the past decade thanks to his control of the National Assembly, pliant institutions such as the Central Bank and friendly judges.
Gino Caso, an auto mechanic, said he would vote for Capriles because he thought Chavez was power-hungry and out of touch with problems such as crime. He said his son had been robbed, as had neighboring shops.
“I don’t know what planet he lives on,” Caso said, gesturing with hands blackened with grease. “He wants to be like Fidel Castro — end up with everything, take control of the country.”
Political analyst Ricardo Sucre said he expected the election to show “two halves, more or less even.” Regardless of the result, he said, Venezuelans are likely to remain deeply divided by politics for years to come.
Associated Press writers Frank Bajak, Christopher Toothaker, Jorge Rueda and Vivian Sequera contributed to this report.
Ian James on Twitter: http://twitter.com/ianjamesap