Voters in this country hard-hit by a drop in oil prices will choose from two dozen presidential candidates in Sunday's election, including a liberal front-runner, a conservative and a witch doctor.
Opinion polls have consistently projected Carlos Andres Perez, a former president, solidly ahead in the contest but with his left-of-center Democratic Action Party expected to lose its congressional majority.Independent polls gave Perez a lead between 12 and 15 percentage points until last week. But aides of conservative Social Christian rival Eduardo Fernandez claimed early this week both had 41 percent of the those polled.
An estimated 10 percent of the nation's more than 9 million voters were still undecided.
Perez, a 66-year-old leader who nationalized the country's oil industry in the mid-70s, has promised to seek "decent repayment terms" on the country's $33 billion foreign debt.
Fernandez, 48, says he represents a new generation of leadership, embracing an unconcealed sympathy for the private sector. He plans to sell off many state-run enterprises.
Besides the two front-runners, 22 other candidates representing a wide political spectrum, from the first woman candidate to a witch doctor who follows a local Spanish-Indian goddess, also ran mostly shoestring campaigns aiming at least to get seats in the 244-seat national congress, all up for grabs this election.
The Supreme Electoral Council, which oversees the electoral process, ordered all parties to cease campaigning Friday and give citizens a two-day break before the election.
Estimates place the cost of the campaign at some $40 million for each of the two major candidates, 14 times the estimated per capita cost of the U.S. campaign.
Fernandez launched an all-out attack the last two weeks, accusing Perez of selling out Venezuelan rights in a border dispute with Colombia.
Perez charged Fernandez of "anti-patriotism" and "irresponsible electioneering" for bringing it up.
Perez, 66, who governed Venezuela between 1974 and 1979, a period of unparalleled oil affluence, could be the first to win a second term in 30 years of democratic rule. The constitution bans presidents from seeking re-election until 10 years after their first mandate expires.
More than 50,000 troops have been placed on full alert to ensure order at voting stations.