Venezuela tense as voters prepare to pick president
Populist Chavez seen as front-runner in Sunday ballot
Web posted at: 8:09 p.m. EST (0109 GMT)
CARACAS, Venezuela (CNN) -- Venezuela was quiet but decidedly tense as voters prepared to go to the polls Sunday to decide the winner in a bitterly contested presidential election.
Unnerved by a campaign that has split the country along class lines and raised fears of violence, shoppers swamped supermarkets to stock up on essentials and besieged automatic bank tellers to withdraw money.
"I've got everything I need at home," said architect Gilberto Lehr. "If anything happens, I won't need to go out for days."
The two leading candidates in the presidential race are populist Hugo Chavez, 44, a former military officer, and Henrique Salas, 62, a Yale-educated businessman backed by much of the country's political establishment.
Irene Saez, 36, a former Miss Universe and mayor of the Chacao municipality in metropolitan Caracas, remains in the race but is given little chance of winning.
A 40-member team of international election monitors, led by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, is in the country to keep an eye on the ballot. The team also included former presidents Patricio Aylwin of Chile and Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada of Bolivia.
Chavez considered front-runner
Chavez, whom critics charge is dangerously left-wing and has dictatorial ambitions, is considered the front-runner. In regional elections November 8, his Patriotic Pole coalition won a plurality in Congress and broke a 40-year stranglehold by the country's two traditional parties, COPEI and Democratic Action.
In 1992, Chavez led a failed coup against then-President Carlos Andres Perez and became a hero to millions of poor people fed up with rampant corruption. Released from prison two years later, he formed his own political movement.
Salas, running as an independent, is the former governor of the industrial Carabobo state, where he cut spending and slashed a bloated government bureaucracy. He draws most of his support from the middle and upper classes fearful of Chavez.
Shaken by the prospect of a Chavez victory, both Democratic Action and COPEI have swung their political machines behind Salas.
Oil plunge triggers cuts in services
But much of the electorate is fed up with Venezuela's traditional political establishment, which has failed to stem corruption or do much to ease poverty in a country that has the largest oil reserves outside of the Middle East.
With oil prices at a 12-year low, the government has been forced to make deep cuts in essential services, from health care to education. Inflation, at 31 percent, is the worst in Latin America.
In this atmosphere, Chavez has seized the national imagination, often invoking the image of the hero of Venezuelan independence, Simon Bolivar.
"The hour has arrived for the resurrection of Venezuela," Chavez told a half million roaring supporters Wednesday. He wants to dissolve Congress and enacted a new constitution.
That has led Salas to charge that Chavez intends to impose a dictatorship. But some Venezuelans are so fed up with the status quo that they say they don't fear that prospect.
"In these 40 years of democracy in Venezuela, the country has regressed," said Francisco Escalona, a firefighter who lives in Catia, a shantytown in western Caracas. "If a dictatorship offers the kind of government where education, health care -- all the public services -- work, then I'm for it."
Some observers in Venezuela fear that a win by Chavez could trigger a counter coup to keep him from taking office -- or that, should he lose, his supporters will take to the streets in violent protest.
Correspondent Harris Whitbeck and Reuters contributed to this report.
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