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Mr. Chavez has accumulated near-absolute power over the past decade, thanks to his control of the National Assembly, friendly judges in the courts, and pliant institutions such as the Central Bank.

Gino Caso, an auto mechanic, said he would vote for Mr. Capriles because Mr. Chavez is power-hungry and out of touch with problems such as crime. He said his son had been robbed, as had neighboring shops.

“I don’t know what planet he lives on,” Mr. Caso said, gesturing with hands blackened with grease. “He wants to be like Fidel Castro — end up with everything, take control of the country.”

Political analyst Ricardo Sucre said he expected the election to show “two halves, more or less even.” Regardless of the result, he said, Venezuelans are likely to remain deeply divided by politics for years to come.

Associated Press writers Christopher Toothaker and Jorge Rueda contributed to this report.