CARACAS -- In the 23 de Enero neighborhood, a few blocks from where Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez will cast his vote Sunday, William Martín, 53, was speculating about what would happen if their comandante loses the race.
“It’s going to be hard for people to accept that they're going to lose their future, hard to accept that that they’re going to lose the [social] missions,” said Martin, a die-hard Chavista and a security guard for the minister of transportation. “We don’t want violence...but things won’t be easy at all.”
As this nation of 30-million heads to the polls, the only thing that seems clear is that about half the nation will feel jilted come Monday.
While both campaigns point to polls that give them decisive leads, most analysts say the race is too tight to call and the large numbers of “undecided” voters are a wildcard that could tilt the scale either way.
Investment banks – often good indicators of prevailing political winds – are divided. Credit Suisse and Bank of America Merrill Lynch give Chávez a slight lead. Barclays and Venezuela’s BBO Financial Services give the opposition a narrow victory.
Both candidates have much at stake. Chávez, who has been in power since 1999, says he needs an additional six years to cement his “21st Century Socialism.” Former Miranda Gov. Henrique Capriles, 40, says the country needs political reconciliation and Brazilian-style economic reforms that protect the poor even as they revive the private sector.
“These aren’t normal elections,” said Jesús Alberto Carranza, 47, as he sat on a bench in front of a massive mural of Cuba’s Ernesto “Che” Guevara. “Even the cats are going to be voting.”
The 23 de Enero neighborhood – named for the day in 1958 that Dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez was overthrown – is such a Chavista stronghold that locals can name the single apartment where they’ve seen an opposition banner.
The walls of the hillside community are covered in murals: there’s the Virgin Mary carrying an AK-47 and portraits of Libyan leader Muammar Kaddafi and Mexico’s Subcomandante Marcos. It’s also home to armed pro-government groups called colectivos that many fear could produce chaos or try to disrupt Sunday’s vote.
But on Saturday, passions in the neighborhood were on a low boil.
“Chávez could die or Capriles could die and they wouldn’t be missed,” said Armando Cardivillo, 65, who described himself as a revolutionary lawyer and longtime community activist. “Whatever happens, things will be calm here…Nothing can take away the revolution.”
But at Plan Suárez, a supermarket in the well-off neighborhood of Caurimare, workers said there had seen a run on candles in the last few days amid worries that election troubles could bring power outages.
Celestina Paz, a security guard for the supermarket, said the busy lines at the checkout were unusually long for a Saturday. Asked why, she smiled broadly, raised an eyebrow and said “Because tomorrow is the end of the world.”
In the waning days of the race, Chávez couched the race as a matter of life or death. He warned that a Capriles’ victory could spark a civil war and throw the nation into chaos. He also accused the opposition of planning to cry fraud and resorting to violence if it lost.
“The life of this nation is at stake,” he said during his final rally.
But many have written off the rherotic as campaign bluster.
Juan García, 53, was sitting in a Caracas mall wearing Capriles’ signature tri-color baseball hat and a bracelet with the candidate’s motto: “There is a path.”
“I still believe we live in a democracy,” said García, a sidewalk vendor from the community of Barlovento, “and that whoever wins, the other half of the country is going to accept it.”
On Saturday, the National Election Council reported that almost all of the 13,800 election centers are operational and prepared for the flood of voters that will begin at 6 am. Authorities said they could have the voting tally three hours after polls close at 6 pm. But the electoral body has also said they will not release results until there is a clear winner.
Chávez has asked his followers to rise at 3 am and hit the ballots early so that his victory will be guaranteed by noon. He’s also created “patrols” in charge of making sure abstention – considered the Achilles heel of his campaign -- is kept to a minimum.
The opposition is also relying on early voting and, for the first time, will have witnesses at every voting center to cut down on potential fraud.
At the technical school where Chávez will cast his vote, the walls are covered in pictures of the young president and Karl Marx. It also has a saying of Latin American liberator Simon Bolivar scrawled on one wall.
“You can lose all of the battles,” it reads, “except for the last one.”