Venezuelans' election choice: Chávez heir vs. opposition

| Apr. 14, 2013 | Caracas, Venezuela

Published by USA Today

Late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez remained the main focus Sunday as Venezuelans vote in a special presidential election, choosing between chosen heir Nicolás Maduro or contender Henrique Capriles Radonski.

"This country has fallen apart under Chávez. There's no work, no food, nothing. Capriles is ready to take this country forward. Maduro is nothing, not even compared to Chávez," said Sonia Deriche, 68, who showed off her painted finger demonstrating that she had voted.

Deriche said she believes that Capriles can win. "I voted for Henrique," she said proudly, "the candidate of change."

Turnout appeared low so far as Venezuelans headed to the polls for the second time in seven months. Gangs of red-clad motorcyclists rode through the slums of Caracas on Sunday morning calling people to get out and vote for Maduro.

In Caracas' 23 de enero slum, Nazareth Guzmán, 22, voted for Maduro, whom Chávez appointed successor before he died of cancer last month.

"I voted at 6 a.m., as soon as the station opened," she says with a smile as she walks up the narrow steps at her rickety house positioned above the Sierra Maestra polling station. "Maduro is going to follow Chávez's revolution and continue his legacy. He'll continue the social programs for old people, for children, for us all."

Capriles won't do the same, Guzmán said. "He doesn't care about us."

Maduro's appointment as heir has been the focus of his pitch to voters ahead of the election; he has spent much of the short campaign religiously invoking the name of his former boss.

Maduro has the lead, as he surfs the wave of Chávez's considerable legacy. However, the gap between the government and opposition could be much smaller than in October's presidential election — where Chávez defeated Capriles by 11 percentage points — as Maduro lacks Chávez's charisma.

The latest poll from Datanalisis, a Caracas-based polling firm, put the gap at 7.2 percentage points.

Luis Vicente León, head of Datanalisis, predicts that should Maduro win, he will face trouble in the coming months thanks to a litany of woes Chávez left behind as well as competition from within his own party.

"In six months, Maduro is going to be in trouble because he is very different to Chávez," he said.

Should Maduro win, he also will have to grapple with a country sliding into economic chaos that the bombastic socialist leader largely escaped the blame for prior to his death March 5. Maduro is not likely to be so fortunate, say political analysts here.

"Whatever happens on Sunday one thing is certain: There is going to be a new chapter in Venezuelan politics,'' says Oscar Schemel, who runs the country's Hinterlaces polling agency.

Contributing: Peter Wilson, Special for USA TODAY