Venezuelan candidates hold final rallies

Chavez and his challenger, Henrique Capriles, appeal to 19 million people registered to vote in tight presidential race.

    Venezuela two main presidential candidates have been gathering with their supporters for their final rallies before the election on Sunday.

    Supporters of President Hugo Chavez, who is running for a third term, filled the roads of Caracas on Thursday, while his main opponent, Henrique Capriles, is expecting crowds as he speaks in the city of Barquisimeto.

    Nearly 19 million Venezuelans are registered to vote in a tightly contested race.

    "I have never seen a march this big,” Angelina Salavaria, a government supporter, told Al Jazeera. “There will never be anyone like Chavez.”

    State employees quit their offices by the tens of thousands, joining the red-shirted throngs that filled Caracas's center for the final pre-election rally for Chavez.

    People converged on Caracas by bus from all corners of Venezuela for Thursday's street party.

    People barbecued on sidewalks, danced to music played on various stages and downed beer before a deluge drenched everyone, including Chavez.

    Anti-Chavez vote

    The crowd numbered several hundred thousand, topping the turnout the previous Sunday for Capriles' final rally in Caracas.

    "Chavez's political machine bused in supporters from around the country," Al Jazeera's Chris Arsenault reported from the rally in Caracas.

    "Hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated, including many government employees who were obliged to attend. Many in the crowd were drinking alcohol and seemed confident of electoral victory."
     
    Gebel Valeriu, a teacher who came from another state, told Al Jazeera: “Housing, education and healthcare have all improved under Chavez.”

    Chavez's opponent in Sunday's election, Henrique Capriles, and his supporters accused the government of handing out red shirts to public employees and compelling them to participate.

    Al Jazeera's Teresa Bo, reporting from Barquisimeto, says "Many people are saying Capriles has managed to unite the anti-Chavez vote, but we will have to see what the electorate will say on Sunday."

    Venezuela is one of the world's largest oil producers, and 40 per cent of the government budget comes from oil income.

    Throughout much of his time in office Chavez has benefited from high oil prices, and used the country's wealth to invest heavily in social programmes for the country's poor.

    But Venezuela suffers from high inflation rates, food shortages and low investment rates, that make it difficult for people to find jobs outside the government bureaucracy.

    Contrasting visions

    Capriles, a lawyer and former state governor, says he wants to use the incomes received from the oil to rebuild the country and help Venezuelan people, instead of distribute the money to other countries.

    Venezuela elections

     Profile: Hugo Chavez
    Profile: Henrique Capriles 
    Candidates pledges
     Venezuela election graffiti

    Chavez has called his supporters to rally around him and to give him another six years to achieve his social reform programme.

    He finished treatment for cancer less than six months ago and has reassured supporters that he is cured and fit to serve out his term.

    "I've already told you, nobody should let their guard down, on the contrary, we will increase the effort these days that are left, to achieve the greatest amount of votes," Chavez told his supporters.

    A recent survey by respected polling firm Datanalisis showed Capriles trailing Chavez by 10 points, but noted that he was narrowing the gap.

    Capriles is considered the most serious rival that Chavez has faced since he was first elected president in 1998.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and agencies


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