The two contenders in Venezuela’s tight presidential race cast their votes Sunday as this oil-rich nation of 30 million turned out in force to chart its future.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, 58, is hoping to win an additional six-year term to deepen the socialist reforms he’s pursued over the last 14 years.
Former Miranda Gov. Henrique Capriles, 40, wants to roll-out Brazilian-style reforms that will jumpstart the economy without leaving the poor behind.
Voting in the working-class 23 de Enero neighborhood, Chávez told reporters that he would “respect and support” the outcome of today’s race.
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“Whether it’s a one vote difference or 3 million votes, the responsible political actors must recognize the results,” he said after voting. “Also, this is an electoral system that is absolutely transparent.”
With long lines continuing at many polling stations, Chávez said voting could extend past the 6 p.m. deadline. The National Election Council, or CNE, said it will not release results until after the polls close and there is a clear winner in the race.
Capriles voted in the municipality of Baruta, where he was once mayor.
After pushing through a crowd of supporters and showing reporters his “lucky shoes” which have helped him win four consecutive elections, he vowed to accept Sunday’s results.
“What the people say today is a sacred word,” Capriles told reporters. “To know how to win you also have to know how to lose.”
Chávez arrived at his polling station surrounded by family, cabinet members and international celebrities, including Hollywood actor Danny Glover and Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú.
As he emerged from the polling station — a technical school that has his portrait painted on the wall beside that of Karl Marx — Chávez waved to crowds of chanting supporters.
Both candidates dodged questions about what they might do if they lose the race, citing election laws that forbid campaigning.
Carolina Haskour, 41, was wearing a shirt that read “You snooze you lose” and waiting at the Baruta polling station hoping to catch a glimpse of Capriles.
She said she voted for the former mayor, governor and legislator because she’s tired of the nation’s political polarization and soaring crime rate.
“I want the country to be what it was before,” she said. “There’s so much hate now. I want a country where we don’t fight with each other just because we have different political views.”
At a polling station in Caricuao, a group of Chávez supporters huddled under a red tent and kept a list of everyone in their community who had voted. The effort is part of the administration’s plan to minimize abstention, which tends to hurt the ruling party.
“We’re seeing a massive turnout,” said Tania Peña, one of the organizers. “We’re here because we want socialism, equality and all the social missions.”
For many, the day kicked off at 3 a.m. when fireworks began popping over Caracas, followed later by sound-trucks playing reveille. Chávez had told supporters to rise early to assure his victory before noon.
Jorge San Martin, 48, said he had to wait three hours due to voting-machine failures in his neighborhood, La Florida. But he said the wait was worth it.
“Chávez says he’s the heart of the nation,” said San Martin, citing the president’s campaign slogan. “But I voted for a heart transplant.
At several voting centers, groups of pro-government motorcycle drivers, known as motorizados, honked their horns and popped wheelies.
Wilmer Fuentes, a member of a notorious group called the Lina Ron Commando — named after a gun-toting Chavista who died last year of a heart attack — said there were reports that opposition gangs were “having their way” and might have caused injuries. But Fuentes said he had no details and there were no similar reports.
Defense Minister Henry Rangel Silva told Globovision that there were “some groups that planned to alter public order” in the afternoon, but provided no additional details.
But as of 2:30 p.m. CNE Vice President Sandra Oblitas and Gen. Wilmer Barrientos, who is in charge of election security, said there were no major incidents.
Even so, Caracas’ Catholic Archbishop Jorge Urosa called for calm and said no one should be intimidated into voting one way or another.
“Violence doesn’t win elections, votes win elections,” he said.
While both sides have polls that give them decisive leads, most analysts say the race is too close to call.
The government is trying to keep a lid on exit polls and has vowed to crack down on media outlets that claim a winner before the official announcement.
The close race seemed to be energizing voters, and many people said lines were unusually long on Sunday.
Sulaima McConlley, 38, brought her own chair to wait in line at 4 a.m. to vote in the community of La Quebradita.
“The race is so close, I think a lot of people are very excited about voting,” she said.
El Nuevo Herald staff writer Juan Tamayo contributed to this report.