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Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez greets supporters in the rain during his closing campaign rally in Caracas on Thursday. (JORGE SILVA/REUTERS)
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez greets supporters in the rain during his closing campaign rally in Caracas on Thursday. (JORGE SILVA/REUTERS)

CAMPAIGN

Chavez pulls out all the stops for approaching Venezuelan election Add to ...

The elderly lady in the brown dress drops her bags and sighs as yet another employee of a bus company waves her away. “I’m sorry, sweetie, there are no buses. Not to Caracas, nor anywhere else,” the girl tells her. She’s not alone; no one in the dusty bus terminal of San Cristobal, a sprawling city on the Venezuela-Colombia border, is going anywhere today. President Hugo Chavez commandeered most of the buses in even the most remote corners of the country to pour tens of thousands of supporters into the nation’s capital for the closing week of his election campaign.

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It may take more than a fleet of buses for Mr. Chavez to ensure his political survival. The socialist firebrand’s presidency is under threat, and he knows it.

On Sunday, Venezuelans decide who will govern the country with the world’s largest oil reserves for the next six years. Not since Mr. Chavez was elected to office in 1998 has a campaign been this electrified, this enthusiastic, this tense.

Anxiety reached a boiling point last week as three opposition campaign workers were killed by attackers linked to the government. The President was quick to condemn the attack, but many voters fear post-electoral violence, not in the least caused by Mr. Chavez himself when he said that his losing could “cause a civil war.” And even though military officials recently struck a more conciliatory tone, a nervous calm pervades.

Much is at stake on Sunday. The President now faces a real threat in opposition candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski, a social-democratic former governor who promises to replace Mr. Chavez’s hard-line socialism with a more moderate government. The run-up has been contentious, as Mr. Chavez launched vicious verbal attacks at his adversary, even accusing him of neo-Nazi sympathies despite his Jewish heritage. He is the grandson of Holocaust survivors.

Both the President’s supporters and his detractors know it is now possible he could lose. Most polls still give him a lead, some by as much as 10 points, but at least one has given Mr. Capriles a slight edge.

Mr. Chavez knows losing would mean the end of his “Bolivarian Revolution,” a policy of pouring billions of dollars of oil money into housing, health care and education implemented after he was first elected in 1998, igniting enthusiasm among millions of working-class voters with his promise to end poverty and corruption.

Abroad, Mr. Chavez champions leftist petrol-populism, forming alliances with communist Cuba and Bolivia’s socialist leader, Evo Morales, famously calling former U.S. president George W. Bush “the devil,” and maintaining friendly relations with the vilified regimes of Iran and Syria.

Nelson Vargas, a taxi driver from Caracas, shudders at the prospect of his leader’s defeat. “He built us schools and homes, cares for the elderly. No politician ever cared about the poor before Chavez, and we love him for it.¨

For the opposition, the fall of “El Comandante” can’t come soon enough. They abhor the dark side of chavism, which includes a 30-per-cent inflation rate, a bloated state bureaucracy and protectionist measures that chase away foreign investors. Under Mr. Chavez, oil now accounts for 95 per cent of all exports. Infrastructure is crumbling; a devastating explosion in the country’s largest oil refinery killed 48 last month. Last year was the most violent period in the country’s history with more than 20,000 homicides, four times the number in 1998. Moreover, critical media have been systematically silenced, with Venezuelans now being bombarded by around-the-clock, personality-cult propaganda through the state media monopoly.

In the meantime, the opposition has rallied behind Mr. Capriles. Hailing from a wealthy family, he isn’t quite a man of the people. His campaign started off slowly as the somewhat socially awkward former governor had to shake off his elitist image. However, as the campaign advanced, his youthful energy and good looks won over masses of voters in ways reminiscent of Mr. Chavez himself during his first campaign in 1997.

In past elections, the President never had to go to much length to ensure victory. The opposition was, until recently, a weak and divided bunch.

Then came last year, and everything changed.

Mr. Chavez was diagnosed with cancer and left the country for surgery in Cuba. Few details of his condition were revealed, spurring rumours of his imminent death. He returned in full campaign mode earlier this year, frail and vulnerable.

Recognizing a legitimate threat to his presidency, Mr. Chavez is giving it his all. Last Sunday, Mr. Capriles mobilized more than 100,000 supporters in Caracas. On Thursday, the President answered with an even bigger rally, pulling in every available supporter from around the country.

But to many in the opposition, the rally was a sign of weakness rather than a show of force.

“He can commandeer all the buses he wants. He knows he is going to lose,¨ a woman at the San Cristobal bus terminal said on condition of anonymity because she works for the government. She said she used to support the President, but will now vote for Mr. Capriles because she feels chavism hasn‘t changed the country for the better.

“Chavez is asphyxiating the country, and he can only bully people into submission for so much time.¨

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