Campaigns close ahead of key Venezuela vote


Nicolas Maduro and rival Henrique Capriles make last-ditch appeals at mass rallies before Sunday’s crucial election. Chris Arsenault

CARACAS, Venezuela — Interim president Nicolas Maduro and opposition challenger Henrique Capriles made their final speeches to voters as official campaigning closed ahead of Venezuela’s election.

Hundreds of thousands rallied in Caracas, the capital, to support Maduro, on Thursday. Some wore the trademark red shirts of the Socialist Party and fake moustaches in the bushy style of their candidate.

Capriles’ supporters mobilised in the city of Acarigua, where their nominee promised major changes in the country that is believed to hold the world’s largest oil reserves.

“I am here to seal a commitment to the humble people because they hear that Venezuela has a lot of oil and resources which don’t reach those who need them,” Capriles told supporters.
Economy and security

Sunday’s election will be the first without Hugo Chavez in 14 years. The populist ex-president and former army officer died of cancer last month, and analysts believe the interim leader is attempting to capitalise on his legacy.

Spotlight Follow coverage of the presidential election in Venezuela

Diego Maradona, a football star from Argentina and Adan Chavez, brother of the late president and governor of Barinas state, joined Maduro on the stage as the former bus driver addressed supporters.

“Maduro is not Chavez, but he is the one who should continue Chavez’s revolution,” Lionel Lopez, a marketing manager and government supporter, told Al Jazeera. “The two things Maduro should focus on are the economy and the lack of security.”

Venezuela is facing one of the highest inflation rates in the western hemisphere. The country recorded an estimated 16,000 murders last year.

Heated campaign

Most polls say Maduro, 50, is leading by more the ten percentage points, although Capriles, 40, is said to have narrowed the gap in recent days.

The rhetoric has been heated and personal during the month-long campaign, and voters must decide between two distinct visions for how the country should be governed.

Capriles, the governor of Miranda state, dubbed Maduro a “bull-chicken” and accused his opponent of lying to the people during Chavez’s health crisis.

Maduro, a former foreign minister, has called Capriles “little bourgeois” and alleged that his unmarried opponent is a homosexual.

To counter critiques that he will undue Chavez’s popular social programmes, Capriles promised new “economic measures to strengthen the income of the poorest sections of the population”.

But government supporters do not believe the opposition can build an equitable society.

“Social inclusion has increased a lot in the last 14 years,” Dalia Guia, a pensioner and government supporter told Al Jazeera.

“There have been major investments in education, sports and healthcare because the benefits of the oil industry are now being shared with the people.”

Inequality and extreme poverty decreased significantly during the Chavez era.

‘Candidate of imperialism’

The last day of the campaign came on the 11th anniversary of the 2002 coup against Chavez.

Maduro has sought to link the opposition to the coup, which was led by business leaders with the help of rebellious military officers.

The putsch lasted 47 hours, with loyal soldiers returning Chavez to power amid popular protests that left 19 people dead.

Capriles, who was a mayor at the time, has denied having any ties to the attempted coup.

Andres Izarra, a member of Chavez’s command, told Al Jazeera that his party was facing “the candidate of imperialism and the United States and all of its powers”.

More than 15 million Venezuelans are eligible to cast ballots on Sunday. The end of campaigning means political advertisements need to be withdrawn from the news media and alcohol sales are prohibited.

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