Venezuela election to test Chavez's legacy

Venezuela’s next elections will be a test to Hugo Chavez’s socialist legacy.

Venezuela’s next elections will be a test to Hugo Chavez’s socialist legacy. Picture: AFP

CARACAS -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 over opposition challenger Henrique Capriles thanks to Chavez's endorsement and the surge of grief and sympathy over his death from cancer last month.

The candidates closed out official campaigning on Thursday with duelling rallies, both drawing hundreds of thousands of boisterous supporters. Taking a page out of Chavez's playbook, a fiery Maduro marched through the streets of the capital draped in a Venezuelan flag and called on voters to follow "Commander Chavez as the spiritual guide of the fatherland."

"I am the son of Chavez," the burly 50-year-old former bus driver shouted to supporters in downtown Caracas. "I am ready to be your president."

Waving posters of the late president, the crowd sang back the campaign slogan, which rhymes in Spanish: "Chavez, I swear to you, I'll vote for Maduro!"

Capriles, an energetic 40-year-old state governor, wrapped up his second presidential campaign in seven months - he lost to an ailing Chavez last October - in the nearby city of Barquisimeto, pledging to end the divisive politics of the late president's 14-year rule and the rampant crime that is the top concern of Venezuelans.

"Those who govern today have never done anything for your security. Sunday we're going to choose between life and death," Capriles roared to the crowd. "If you want a future, you have to vote for change, for a different government."

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 what Chavez liked to call "21st century socialism" - a mix of hard-left politics, heavy government spending on the poor, and growing state control over the economy.

The presidential vote will be the first time that Chavez isn't on the ballot in two decades, but in many ways the election is all about him. Maduro has cast himself as Chavez's "first apostle" and has sought to emulate his former boss's fiery rhetoric on the campaign trail.

At every rally, 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 a two-year battle with cancer on March 5.

Keenly aware of Chavez's cult-like following among the poor, Capriles has spent much of the campaign denying Maduro's claims that he would get rid of the oil-funded social spending that was the cornerstone of the late president's popularity. He has also sought to court Chavez supporters by promising to raise wages by 40 percent.

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 Chavez win re-election last year.

Capriles would face an even tougher landscape if he wins. Chavez's rule thoroughly transformed Venezuela, and nearly all of the country's institutions - from ministries and government agencies to the military and state oil giant PDVSA - are packed with die-hard Chavez supporters.

Capriles touched a nerve with scathing attacks on Maduro and others whom he denounced as "skin-deep revolutionaries." He accused them of betraying Chavez's legacy by filling their pockets while paying only lip service to his ideology.

Maduro, meanwhile, has painted his rival as a pampered rich kid who represents a wealthy and venal Venezuelan elite - and their "imperial" financial backers in Washington.