- Associated Press - Sunday, October 7, 2012

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — President Hugo Chavez’s crusade to transform Venezuela into a socialist state, which has bitterly divided the nation, was put to the stiffest electoral test of his nearly 14 years in power on Sunday in a closely fought presidential election.

Reveille blared from sound trucks to awaken voters, and the bugle call was later replaced by folk music mixed with a recording of Mr. Chavez’s voice saying, “Those who love the homeland come with me.” At many polling places, voters lined up two hours before polls opened at dawn.

Mr. Chavez’s challenger, Henrique Capriles, has united the opposition in a contest between two camps that distrust each other so deeply there are concerns whether a close election result will be respected.

The stakes couldn’t be higher.

If Mr. Chavez wins a new six-year term, he gets a free hand to push for an even bigger state role in the economy, further limit dissent and continue to befriend rivals of the United States.

If Mr. Capriles wins, a radical foreign policy shift can be expected along with an eventual loosening of state economic controls and an increase in private investment — though a tense transition likely would follow until the January inauguration because Mr. Chavez’s political machine thoroughly controls the wheels of government.

Many Venezuelans were nervous about what might happen if the disputes erupt over the election’s announced outcome.

“I’m really tired of all this polarization,” said Lissette Garcia, a 39-year-old clothes seller and Capriles supporter who voted Sunday in the wealthy Caracas district of Las Mercedes. “I want to reconnect with all my friends who are ‘Chavistas.’”

Mr. Chavez’s critics say the president has inflamed divisions by labeling his opponents “fascists,” ”Yankees” and “neo-Nazis,” while Chavez backers allege that Mr. Capriles will halt generous government programs that assist the poor.

During Mr. Chavez’s final rally Thursday in Caracas, he shouted to the crowd, “We’re going to give the bourgeoisie a beating!”

David Hernandez, a Chavez supporter, agreed the mood was tense, but he blamed the opposition.

“Chavez is going to win and Capriles will have to accept his defeat,” Mr. Hernandez said, standing next to his parked motorcycle on a downtown street. “If Capriles doesn’t accept his defeat, there could be problems.”

Violence flared sporadically during the campaign, including shootings and rock-throwing during rallies and political caravans. Two Capriles supporters were shot to death in the western state of Barinas last weekend.

Troops were dispatched across Venezuela to guard thousands of voting centers Sunday.

Mr. Chavez, who says he has emerged successfully from long treatment for cancer, held an impromptu news conference Saturday night, and when asked about the possibility of disputes over the vote, he said he expected both sides to accept the result.

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