In high spirits Thursday evening, Ricardo Rendon and Camila Salas left their apartment in Caracas's middle-class Sabana Grande neighbourhood to attend a play. The evening turned out more dramatic than they bargained for. "They threw tear gas into the theatre," Mr. Rendon says. Asked who was responsible, he almost chokes in anger. "The chavistas of course, who else? They knew the playwright is an opposition sympathizer, so they tear-gassed us."
Election season is never a pretty affair in Venezuela, but this 10-day campaign has been short, nasty and brutish.
Venezuelans go to the polls on Sunday to choose a successor to Hugo Chavez, the firebrand socialist president who succumbed to cancer last month. The outcome will either mean a continuation of his policies through his chosen successor, Nicolas Maduro, or the abandonment of socialism with the election of Henrique Capriles, a centrist candidate bent on implementing a moderate approach like Brazil's former president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
As massive mourning subsided for Mr. Chavez, an ugly battle for succession started. There have been violent outbursts, intimidation, dirty tricks. Red-clad members of motorcycle gangs, who ride through the city in packs, have repeatedly harassed and intimidated opposition campaigners; one such gang attacked a group of students in Caracas on Monday night, injuring several. On Wednesday, several people participating in an opposition march in San Juan de los Morros, just outside Caracas, were beaten by a different gang. There have been complaints about fraud, too. Venezuelan expats in Panama warn their embassy is blocking them from registering to vote.
In Sunday's ballot, Mr. Maduro, a former bus driver, union leader and currently interim president, faces off against Mr. Capriles, a young and energetic social democrat who currently serves as governor of Miranda state. Mr. Capriles ran against Mr. Chavez himself in October and, though he lost by an 11-per-cent margin, he was able to rally Venezuela's traditionally divided opposition under one banner.
Mr. Maduro's lead in the polls of more than 20 per cent in March had diminished to only seven points on Thursday, when the campaign officially ended.
At stake is the future of the so-called Bolivarian Revolution, Mr. Chavez's socialist project of using the country's oil wealth to pour billions of dollars into free health care, education and housing. Mr. Chavez, who once famously called former U.S. president George W. Bush "the Devil" also became a highly controversial regional leader, forging oil-drenched alliances with other leftist regimes and angering the West by supporting Syria, Iran and Cuba.
Mr. Maduro insists none of that must change. With the virtually limitless petrodollar resources of the federal budget at his disposal, he mobilized every last supporter, organizing massive rallies attended by the thousands. Many fear an opposition victory would end the social programs that lifted hundreds of thousands out of poverty.
"Capriles is an agent of the rich," says Miguel Pabon, a 30-year-old community organizer from Caracas's 23 de Enero slum. It was there that Mr. Chavez launched a failed coup attempt in 1992, and where the casket of the comandante is still on display at his former military base. Sporting fatigues and a bright-red handkerchief wrapped around his neck, Mr. Pabon says that everyone in 23 de Enero supports Mr. Maduro. "We cannot let the opposition win. They are corrupt thieves. Mr. Chavez said we should follow Maduro, so we follow him."
At times the campaign has descended into absurdism, especially as Mr. Maduro repeatedly attempted to elevate Mr. Chavez to a quasi-religious status. He claimed his predecessor's spirit had been incarnated in a little bird to bless his campaign and he called Mr. Chavez "Christ the Redeemer" of the poor – with Mr. Maduro himself, of course, being his "apostle."
Mr. Maduro also lashed out viciously against his opponent, calling Mr. Capriles – who is a descendant of Jewish Holocaust survivors – a "son of Hitler." And Mr. Maduro warned voters that a centuries-old curse would befall anyone who dares vote for the opposition.
Mr. Capriles, in turn, proposes a moderate leftist government based on Brazil's hugely popular former president, Mr. Lula. He promises to preserve most of the social programs, but to end Mr. Chavez's hard-line socialist policies, which he says are responsible for Venezuela's soaring 30-per-cent inflation rate; the explosion in violent crime – last year more than 20,000 people were murdered, more than any other year in history; the country's crumbling infrastructure; and widespread shortages caused by trade restrictions.
In contrast to the conciliatory tone he struck when facing Mr. Chavez in October, Mr. Capriles repeatedly accused Mr. Maduro of cowering behind Mr. Chavez's corpse and berated him for never having been elected democratically.
Opposition voters are generally pessimistic. Even though many believe Mr. Capriles has a real chance of winning, they are doubtful whether that would actually lead to a change in power. There is widespread fear the chavist establishment is unwilling to hand over power and that there is a very real possibility of violence should Mr. Capriles come out on top.
"There is no way the government will accept defeat," says Mr. Rendon, still shaking from the tear-gas attack. "Without Chavez, they are nothing but a bunch of corrupt cronies, who will do anything to hold on to power. And if the opposition protests, there will be violence."