Venezuelan elections described as orderly
Populist Chavez seen as front-runnerDecember 6, 1998
Web posted at: 4:22 p.m. EST (2122 GMT)
CARACAS, Venezuela (CNN) -- Voting in Venezuela's bitterly contested presidential election on Sunday was described as peaceful and orderly amid fears the results could trigger violent protests.
The tension resulting from a campaign that has split the country along class lines prompted a call for peace from the country's current president, Rafael Caldera.
"The government and armed forces have promised to respect the electoral results. That respect will be sacrosanct," Caldera vowed. "At the same we demand that the results be accepted in peace."
The two leading candidates for president 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.
Voter turnout has been high Sunday, and most polling stations have opened on time.
Chavez cast his ballot as some 1,000 supporters chanted "Chavez! Chavez!" and "Viva Venezuela!"
"Today a new Venezuela is being born," Chavez told reporters. A throng of teen-agers chased after his white van as it drove away.
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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