Published by The Sunday Times //pdf1//
WITH his opponent snapping at his heels, Hugo Chavez, Venezuela's populist president, may come to regret equipping his country with one of the most sophisticated electronic voting systems in the world.
In the old days, it was easy to tinker with ballot boxes — and Latin America's strongmen often did. But Chavez, in power since 1999 and with no desire to relinquish control of the government or the nation's vast oil revenues, might have to consider more muscular means if he is to avoid being booted out of office in today's election.
Fears of what might happen in Venezuela should Chavez lose have been growing since Henrique Capriles, his rival, unified a hitherto unimpressive opposition and persuaded many of the country's poor — Chavez's core supporters — that it is time for the country to move on.
Opinion polls are widely divergent, with some showing Chavez, 58, with a slim lead and others giving the advantage to Capriles, 40.
With media, oil money and mobs at his service, Chavez clearly has the advantage. Although many Venezuelans seem fed up with their troubles, including one of the highest murder rates in the world, government workers live in fear of losing their jobs if they do not vote for the leader.
"The government has sown this fear," Capriles said, adding that the reluctance of people to speak their mind skewed opinion polls in favour of Chavez.
"If we can overcome the fear, I believe we can win this election by a million votes."
As the campaign entered its final days, the charismatic Chavez seemed to have lost none of the dynamism for which he is famous despite a battle with cancer and long periods in which he vanished from public life to undergo treatment in Cuba.
Jumping onto the stage at rallies, singing songs and playing an electric guitar, he inspired an almost religious fervour among his supporters.
"Long live the rain," he shrieked in a closing rally on Thursday when hundreds of thousands of people braved a thunderstorm to hear him speak in the capital, Caracas.
Earlier this year, as his motorcade headed to the airport for treatment in Cuba, he credited God for his survival of cancer. "I dreamt a while ago of Christ who came and said, 'Chavez, rise, it is not time to die, it's time to live'. Independent of my personal destiny, this revolution already has its own momentum and will not be stopped," he said.
It is hard to imagine him meekly surrendering power and abandoning the "Bolivarian revolution" — which takes its name from Simon Bolivar, his hero, who liberated several Latin American countries from Spanish rule in the 19th century.
Chavez and his cronies have taken over all sectors of life in Venezuela, and images of the leader beneath his trademark red beret seem to be emblazoned on every wall.
His face dominates television screens day and night as, in a manner reminiscent of Fidel Castro, he harangues his countrymen, often for hours on end, on subjects from agriculture to "Yankee imperialism".
In one speech last year he raised the possibility that Washington had developed a secret, cancer-inducing technology that it had used to target enemies such as himself and other left-wing Latin American leaders.
Another conspiracy theory popular among his opponents has it that Chavez's illness might be a myth designed to distract the public's attention from the country's problems and to win sympathy. If so, it does not appear to be working.
Complaining not only of rising crime, but regular power blackouts and runaway inflation, many Venezuelans have had enough.
"If socialism's so good, why isn't the whole world socialist?" asked Cesar Jimenez, a cobbler drinking a beer in his shop in a slum overlooking Caracas. Jimenez said he had always voted in the past for Chavez. This time he is leaning towards his rival.
With good looks and an easygoing manner, Capriles has had no difficulty in winning over large crowds and is particularly popular among women. He has turned up at rallies on his motorbike and played basketball in the back streets with young supporters.
Chavez does not appreciate the threat to his rule. "We're going to pulverise you," he announced with characteristic bluntness at one point. "You're a lowlife pig."
In what appeared to be an effort to intimidate the opposition, two Capriles activists were killed last Saturday while a third remains in a critical condition.
Shots have been fired at other opposition activists, stones have been thrown and vehicles set alight. Capriles has blamed the president.
"It is you [Chavez] who want this scenario," Capriles said last month, "you who want to spread fear, you who want Venezuelans to continue fighting each other."
However, many regard Chavez as a hero for using more of the country's oil wealth than his predecessors to help the masses. In Ciudad Caribia, a flagship city built for the poor just outside Caracas, residents are in no doubt who they will vote for.
"I vote for the president," declared Angelica Perez, 33, "because he is the only one who has done anything for Venezuela."
Chavez, for his part, has never sounded anything but supremely confident. Among his memorable sayings is: "It would be easier for a donkey to pass through the eye of a needle than for the opposition to win the elections."