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Fears abound ahead of close Venezuelan elections

By Fabiola Sanchez

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 3 2012 4:16 p.m. MDT

In this Sept. 27, 2012 photo, a poster of Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez hangs on the door where Maria Perez carries her granddaughter out of the room where they live that was once a school room and is now part of a government provided shelter for families who lost their homes due to flooding, in Caracas, Venezuela. Fear of every stripe, like the loss of government housing like this one, permeates the intensely polarized election campaign, with many votes to be decided based not on the candidates' promises but rather on what worries people most. Chavez has continuously warning of chaos and the dismantling of the generous welfare state he built if he is voted out of office in the Oct. 7 vote.

Fernando Llano, Associated Press

CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuelan voters Luis Gustavo Marin and Dunia Nessi are on opposite sides of the political spectrum, but as Sunday's election draws closer they both fear what will happen if their candidate loses.

Marin, the security chief for a judge and a firm supporter of President Hugo Chavez, worries that opposition candidate Henrique Capriles will launch a violent purge of Chavez supporters if he wins. If the president prevails, Nessi, a 62-year-old accountant, believes violent crime that has run rampant under Chavez will spiral even further out of control.

"There is absolutely no security," Nessi said. "If he wins I'll either have to stay and live with the tension or I can pack two suitcases, throw four things into them and leave."

Fear of every stripe, in fact, permeates the intensely polarized campaign, with many votes to be decided based not on the candidates' promises but rather on what worries people most. Capriles has intentionally avoided mentioning voter fears, but Chavez has taken an opposite tack by continuously warning of chaos and the dismantling of the generous welfare state he built if he is voted out of office.

Tensions were only heightened when two members of a Capriles caravan were shot dead Saturday in the western state of Barinas. The victims' relatives blamed Chavez supporters and said the attack was unprovoked. Both Capriles and Chavez called for non-violence in the wake of the killings, even as the president continued using heated rhetoric.

For the first time facing such a formidable challenger, Chavez has painted a dire picture of a Venezuela returning to its stratified past when it was ruled by greedy elites, which Chavez says Capriles represents.

"I believe that this is true, if the Venezuelan bourgeoisie tries to apply this package Venezuela could see a civil war," Chavez said last month at a rally in Charallave in central Venezuela.

Chavez repeats almost daily that his opponent would take away benefits funded in part by nearly $1 trillion in income from petroleum exports over the past decade, no matter that Capriles has pledged to leave the programs alone. Free medical care, subsidized food and other entitlements have helped lift tens of thousands of people out of poverty, government figures show.

"They would take away health care, food, pensions," Chavez told supporters Tuesday at a rally in the western city of Barquisimeto.

The president's supporters, known as Chavistas, say they also fear that Capriles will launch a witch hunt if he wins.

"We saw the model of government they are going to apply on April 11, 2002," Marin said, referring to a failed attempt to overthrow Chavez that the military thwarted. In the hours shortly after the coup, interim President Pedro Carmona Estanga famously dissolved Congress and disbanded the Supreme Court.

For their part, Chavez critics point to what they say is a coordinated attempt to shut them up and force them to back the president.

Some government workers have said they worry about losing their jobs if they support Capriles. Fears of retribution for failing to support Chavez first emerged in 2004 when a ruling party deputy released a list of some 2 million people who had backed a referendum against Chavez. Many complained then that state employees on the list were fired.

Adding to those fears, some suspect their ballots won't be kept secret, despite assurances to the contrary from the Chavez-dominated National Electoral Council. The government did not invite international electoral observers, so the Capriles camp has mounted its own parallel organization of vote talliers and says it will have volunteers at every polling station feeding a central tally kept by the opposition.

Despite such concerns, voter turnout Sunday is expected to top 75 percent.

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