CARACAS -- Venezuela’s blazing fast and bitter presidential campaign came to an end Thursday night as interim resident Nicolás Maduro and Miranda Gov. Henrique Capriles drew massive crowds and vowed to win Sunday’s vote.
The 10-day campaign was full of acrimony and accusations, as personal attacks took precedence over policy discussions. The winner will finish out the term of late President Hugo Chávez who died March 5, after an 18-month battle with cancer.
Polls give Maduro, 50, Chávez’s handpicked successor, a comfortable but narrowing lead as he’s vowed to carry on his boss’s popular social programs.
His rival, Henrique Capriles, the 40-year-old governor of Miranda, is running as a center-left reformer who wants to weed out corruption and cronyism but has also vowed to protect the poor and needy.
Capriles, who lost to Chávez in October, is hoping that the enthusiastic crowds he’s been drawing will translate into an upset. And he claims that his own internal polling puts him ahead.
“This is a spiritual fight,” Capriles told a large crowd in Portuguesa — one of three states he visited on the final day of campaigning. “This is a fight of good versus evil, and a fight to defeat lies.”
Maduro’s closing rally in Caracas drew hundreds of thousands and busloads of out-of-state supporters began arriving in the early hours of the morning.
Argentine soccer legend Diego Maradona — a personal friend of the late president — kicked balls into the crowd.
Romer Rogeles, 35, a state-petrol worker, traveled six hours to be at Thursday’s event.
“We have to send the country a message that we are behind Maduro,” he said. “We were with Chávez for 14 years and we’re not going to abandon the government now.”
Polling firms are no longer allowed to release results, but a private poll by Datanalisis from April 1-5 and leaked to the media, shows Maduro with a 10-point lead over Capriles. Late last month, the same company said Maduro had a 14-point advantage.
Marcela Berland, with LatinInsights, an independent research firm focusing on Latin America, said a Capriles win is unlikely. Just six months ago, he lost to Chávez by 11 points, she said. “And I really don’t see anything that has changed all that much since then.”
If anything, Chávez’s absence may give Maduro more of a boost due to the sympathy vote, she said.
“Chávez may pull more votes now that he’s dead than when he was alive,” she said.
Before his death triggered snap elections, Chávez asked the nation to rally behind Maduro, a former union organizer and his longtime foreign minister.
On the stump, Maduro vowed to follow his ex-boss’s political project down to the “last period and comma.”
“I’m here to say that I, the son of Chávez, a working son of the nation, am ready to be president,” he told a crowd Thursday in the western state of Zulia.
In Caracas, Maduro was drowned out by chants of “Chávez lives, the fight continues!”
Capriles said a Maduro administration would exacerbate the crime, inflation and shortages that plague the nation. He’s also accused his rival of using state resources and intimidating public workers.
On Thursday, he said Maduro had strong-armed public workers into attending his campaign event.
“They forced a lot of our brothers onto busses and took them to Caracas,” Capriles said in Portuguesa.
While the campaign has been rushed, it has also been profoundly uneven, said Luís Lara, the director of the Venezuelan Election Observatory, an independent watchdog.
The government has been flooding state-run TV and local newspapers with thinly veiled propaganda that skirts campaign-ad limits, he said. And the speed of the event seems calculated to benefit an administration that is riding high on the sympathy generated by Chávez’s death, he said.
The race has also been taking place amid threats of violence. The government has said that opposition radicals have smuggled Central American mercenaries into the country to generate chaos, including assassinating Maduro or Capriles.
On Thursday, the government said it intercepted a shipment of handguns and ammunition in Barquisimeto, the town where Capriles would be holding his closing rally. Authorities said they were investigating to see if the weapons might be used by political “terrorists.” Late Thursday, Maduro said Colombian paramilitaries had been apprehnded and the government would provide details Friday.
Maduro asked followers to give him 10 million votes — a goal that Chávez himself never reached — adn said he would never let the nation down.
Capriles said that Venezuelans have to have faith that things can change after 14 years of Chavismo.
“We’re going to choose between someone who wants to make your life better, or someone who hasn’t done anything for your safety,” Capriles said at his final stop in Lara, an opposition stronghold. “This Sunday, we’re going to choose between and death.”