Wait begins after huge turnout in Venezuela vote

By Ian James

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, Oct. 7 2012 7:35 p.m. MDT

Supporters of Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez cheer after polling stations closed and before any results were made available outside Miraflores presidential place in Caracas, Venezuela, Sunday, Oct. 7, 2012. Chavez is running for re-election against opposition candidate Henrique Capriles.

Fernando Llano, Associated Press

CARACAS, Venezuela — A huge voter turnout swamped polling sites across Venezuela on Sunday as a united, well-organized opposition candidate gave President Hugo Chavez the race of his life.

Tensions rose in the bitterly divided country while an undetermined number of voting stations remained open after the official 6 p.m. closing time, with not a single result announced nearly three hours later.

Chavez, a socialist who has ruled for nearly 14 years, called on Venezuelans to await results patiently, speaking briefly Sunday night by phone during a news conference held by his campaign chief.

Electoral officials gave no indication of when they might begin releasing first returns. Exit polling is forbidden in Venezuela.

The electoral council's president, Tibisay Lucena, said any stations where voters had not cast ballots would remain open. Meanwhile, bands of red-shirted pro-Chavez motorcyclists, honking horns, roved central Caracas ensuring that such stations stayed open.

While not accusing the government of an intentional delay, challenger Henrique Capriles complained via Twitter that most voting stations lacked lines and that the government should get on with the vote-counting.

Capriles spokesman Armando Briquet demanded that all motorcycle traffic be banned. In the past, gangs of red-shirted motorcyclists chanting pro-Chavez slogans have intimidated people.

Chavez's campaign manager, Jorge Rodriguez, told reporters there were no such plans. "This country has freedom of circulation," he said at a news conference.

Capriles has united the opposition in a contest between two sides that distrust each other so deeply that some expressed concerns whether a close election result would be respected.

If Chavez wins, he gets a free hand to push for an even bigger state role in the economy, further limit dissent and continue to befriend rivals of the United States.

With a Capriles win, an abrupt foreign policy shift can be expected, including halting preferential oil deals with allies such as Cuba, along with a loosening of state economic controls and an increase in private investment. A tense transition would likely follow until the January inauguration because Chavez's political machine thoroughly controls the wheels of government.

"We will recognize the results, whatever they are," Chavez told reporters after casting his vote in Caracas. He said he was pleased by the "massive turnout."

The stakes in the country with the world's largest known oil reserves couldn't be higher.

Just as polls closed, one of several dozen young red-shirted Chavistas on motorcycles said they were ready to begin celebrating.

"Let them accept defeat," one of them, Kleiver Gutierrez, said of the opposition.

One pro-Chavez voter, private bodyguard Carlos Julio Silva, said that whatever his faults, Chavez deserves to win for spreading the nation's oil wealth to the poor with free medical care, public housing and other government largess..

"There is corruption, there's plenty of bureaucracy, but the people have never had a leader who cared about this country," Silva said after voting for Chavez at a school in the Caracas slum of Petare. "That's why the people are going to re-elect Hugo Rafael Chavez Frias."

At many polling places, voters started lining up hours before polls opened at dawn, some snaking blocks in the baking Caribbean sun. Some shaded themselves with umbrellas. Vendors grilled meat and some people drank beer.

Maria Leonis was selling CDs of Chavez's campaign theme music on a sidewalk next to a polling center. "Today I've sold about 100 CDs, just Chavez's song," Leonis said, adding that she supported Chavez because "I want to keep seeing change."

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