Rosales is heading an alliance of opposition groups united primarily by their hatred of Chavez, and accuses the president of squandering his country’s vast oil wealth

There were long queues to many polling stations during the day and although voting had officially ended in some areas at 1600 local time, by law polling stations could not shut their doors until the last person in line had voted.

Chavez favourite

There is a very strict law in Venezuela preventing exit polls being broadcast or published in any way until the electoral commission has sorted through over half the ballots and made its initial findings on how the vote is going.

However, Aljazeera's Rob Reynolds in Caracas has been speaking to people who have been observing the way voting has been going and talking to voters and they have said that so far there is nothing in the trend that would contradict earlier polls predicting a very strong victory for Chavez.

Security sources reported no serious incidents during voting. Extra forces had been deployed in case what had been a bitter campaign spilled over into violence.

Chavez supporters were upbeat as they
turned out to vote
There had been rumours of fraud by some in the Rosales' camp but election officials reported no irregularities.

Highlighting the high voter turnout Chavez earlier said he expected "democratic results".

Divided country

Despite his lead in the polls, the campaign has highlighted stark divisions in Venezuela and both extremes of view were found in many of the queues of waiting voters.

In the neighbourhood of San Bernadino, where middle class streets surround a squalid slum Margarita Budik, a retiree and Rosales supporter called the election the most important in the 50 years since she first voted.

"This election will decide whether one can live here, or whether we have communism," the 68-year old said.

In the same queue, storekeeper Julio Cesar Perez, 59, wore a bright red shirt, the colour of Chavez supporters.

"This shirt says it all," he said with a smile as he awaited his turn near an anti-imperialist mural displaying a caricature of Uncle Sam and the words, "the fatherland cannot be sold".

Chavez charge

Chavez had earlier accused Washington of seeking to sow discord in Venezuela, and denounced his electoral rival as a lackey of the "US empire".

Chavez, 52, has pledged to consolidate his self-styled revolution and launch a new socialist era if re-elected.

Rosales claims Chavez is seeking to turn Venezuela into a communist state and called him "a puppet seated on Castro's lap".

Rosales says Chavez is wasting the
country's oil wealth 
He has managed to unify a previously discordant Venezuelan opposition and accuses his rival of squandering the country’s oil wealth.

Sixteen million people were eligible to vote in the presidential election, including 17,000 who were registered to turn out and vote in Miami, Florida.

The vote ended a busy electoral year in the Latin American region which has seen five left-wing or left-leaning presidents elected into office.