Voters are heading to the polls Sunday to decide who will govern Venezuela for the next six years, with President Hugo Chavez, a leftist firebrand who has been in office for 14 years, facing a stiff challenge from Henrique Capriles.
Election precincts opened at 6:00 a.m. and will close at 6:00 p.m., although the National Elections Council, or CNE, said anyone in line when the polls close would be allowed to cast their ballot.
Some 19 million people are eligible to vote in the election.
Nearly 100 percent of polling places opened on time and are operating normally, CNE chairwoman Tibisay Lucena said.
“We are opening the precincts, ready for the voters to begin this wonderful day, which is a celebration of democracy,” Lucena told the official VTV network.
“At 6:00 a.m. practically 100 percent of CNE personnel were at their work places,” Lucena said.
Campaigning is prohibited on election day and voters should head to the polls early, the CNE chief said.
The polls may not close until 8:00 p.m. if many people are in line at the end of the official voting period, CNE officials said.
The CNE plans to begin releasing results once a clear trend exists, but there is no timeframe for reporting figures.
The release of poll results or exit poll numbers is prohibited until the CNE makes its official announcement.
Some 139,000 soldiers have been deployed to guard polling places under the “Plan Republica,” which covers Venezuela’s 13,810 election precincts.
Some 100,495 people are registered to vote abroad, with the largest numbers in the United States and Spain.
The 58-year-old Chavez, who is running for re-election for a third time, and the 40-year-old Capriles are the top favorites in the field.
Chavez, who has undergone several operations and extensive treatment for cancer, is seeking to hold on to power until 2020.
Idolized by some as a defender of democracy with a social conscience and accused by others of being just another populist dictator concerned only about himself, Chavez has an approval rating of more than 50 percent and most polls give him a strong chance of winning.
Under Chavez, Venezuela has gone on a nationalization spree, exerting state control over a vast swath of the economy, including the oil, cement, food, telecommunications, steel and power sectors, as part of a drive to usher in “socialism of the 21st century.”
Chavez, survivor of a 2002 coup attempt that former U.S. President Jimmy Carter says took place with Washington’s advance knowledge if not active collusion, has also slammed U.S. foreign policy while forging alliances with communist Cuba and Iran, and bolstering Venezuela’s ties with Russia and China.
Capriles, an attorney, has been president of the defunct Chamber of Deputies, a mayor and governor.
A descendent of Jews from the Warsaw ghetto and great-grandson of victims of the Treblinka death camp, Capriles declares himself a practicing Catholic and laid out a platform that attempts to distance him from both radicals of the opposition and the ruling party.
Capriles, known for being conciliatory and a moderate, won an easy victory over his rivals in the primary election and has campaigned across Venezuela for three months to convince his countrymen that his vision for the country is one of reconciliation and national development.
Though his family names are associated with corporate power, Capriles has managed to shed the elitist image to attract even the most destitute.
Despite his youth, he has an impressive resume. He has been governor of Miranda, a state that includes part of Caracas and one of the most important in the country, after winning an election against Diosdado Cabello, one of Chavez’s leading supporters and current president of the National Assembly.