Venezuelans have voted in their first presidential election since Hugo Chavez's death. Although the late president's successor remains ahead in the polls, the opposition has managed to narrow his lead in recent weeks.
Polls began closing at 6:30 p.m. local time (2230 GMT) Sunday evening in Venezuela's second presidential contest in less than year, with the opposition accusing interim-President and Chavez successor Nicolas Maduro of abusing state power and violating election rules.
Maduro had held a double-digit lead over opponent Henrique Capriles, the current governor of Miranda State. But that lead shrank in the final days before the election, with the opposition now seven points behind the Chavez camp, according to a recent opinion survey.
"We're going to have a giant victory," Maduro said. "The bigger the margin, the more peaceful the country will be. If the gap is smaller, it is only because they [the opposition] have managed to confuse a group of Venezuelans."
Maduro, a 50-year-old former bus driver and union leader, served as foreign minister and vice president under Chavez. His campaign has promised to carry on the late leader's socialist revolution, which has reduced poverty through oil-funded social spending.
But Chavez's successor will have to grapple with a weak economy suffering from high inflation, ballooning debt and shortages of basic foods. Venezuela also has South America's highest murder rate, with 16,000 people having been killed last year.
Capriles has promised to tackle economic problems by introducing a Brazilian economic model, combining pro-market policies with heavy social spending on the poor. But former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the very person who helped introduce that model, has expressed support for Maduro.
"We're going to decide the future we want - one where public projects are completed and hospitals function, or one where we stay as we are," 40-year-old Capriles said at one of his rallies before campaigning ended on Thursday.
Capriles has accused Maduro of abusing power and state resources while the National Electoral Council covered its eyes.
Maduro, for his part, has claimed that the "right wing" was conducting a "dirty war" against him. Earlier in the week, the government claimed it had arrested a group of Colombian paramilitaries who were plotting to destabilize Venezuela by detonating explosives.
The interim president has also accused the opposition of plotting to kill him, commit acts of sabotage against the electrical grid and to boycott the election results.
Capriles ran against and lost to Chavez by more than 10 points in October's presidential election. Voter turnout for that contest was 80 percent.
slk/tm (AP, AFP, Reuters)
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