With Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez facing the most serious re-election challenge of his 14-year reign, international observers are bracing for the possibility of social unrest if the outcome is close when voters go to the polls Sunday.
“I think the probability of upheaval and protests increases the closer the vote gets,” said Christopher Sabatini, senior director of policy at the Americas Society and the Council of the Americas in New York.
A close vote count between Mr. Chavez and his fresh-faced challenger Henrique Capriles Radonski may trigger a street-level clash between viscerally opposed supporters of the two.
“There are rumors that Chavista armed organizations are ready to come down from the hills should Capriles win,” said Mr. Sabatini. “The other side is that if Capriles loses in a squeaker, his supporters have some pretty good basis to claim fraud.”
The prospect of an Election Day meltdown in Venezuela, home to the world’s largest oil reserves, caps a dramatic campaign in which many wondered whether the 58-year-old Mr. Chavez would overcome a battle with cancer to run for a third consecutive presidential term.
Most polls going into the weekend showed a small lead for the Venezuelan president, who has made international headlines over the past decade for being perhaps the world’s most bombastic critic of the United States.
Outside observers credit Mr. Capriles, an energetic 40-year-old state governor, with harnessing a coalition of the nation’s fractured opposition factions more effectively than any previous challenger to Mr. Chavez.
Mr. Capriles has won favor among many by hammering Mr. Chavez’s failure to rein in violent crime that finds drug-smuggling and kidnapping to be rampant in Venezuela, where the homicide rate is among the highest in the world.
It is a platform Mr. Capriles hoped would open cracks in the cultlike popularity Mr. Chavez’s has long enjoyed, especially among Venezuela’s poor. They voted en mass for him six years ago after benefiting from socialist education and health care programs that he championed during his early years in power.
“I voted for him, but I regret it,” Rosina Dambrosio, a homemaker in Caracas’ largest low-income barrio told The Associated Press recently.
“He was going to modernize Venezuela and fight crime. And he also spoke so beautifully. I guess we trusted him too much. He still speaks nicely, but I don’t believe him anymore.”
Sunday’s vote will be the best measure of how widely such views are shared.
“Capriles has run a great campaign, has momentum and is getting around, but Chavez is still in a very strong position,” said Michael Shifter, who heads the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington. “He still has a connection to a lot of Venezuelans.”
The vote is being watched closely by officials at the State Department, who are all too aware of the delicate relationship that exists between Washington and Caracas.
Recent years have seen Venezuela remain a key oil partner to the United States, with U.S. companies buying a steady flow of Venezuelan crude, despite Mr. Chavez’s close alliance to Iran, which is currently under heavy U.S. and international sanctions.