Polls have officially closed in Venezuela where President Hugo Chavez is facing the toughest race in almost 14 years in power after fresh-faced rival Henrique Capriles electrified the country’s opposition.
Voting, however, is going on into Sunday evening and polling booths will stay open as long as needed to allow everyone to cast their ballots.
Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan president, appealed for calm as voting continued after closing hours in some polling stations in the toughest reelection battle.
“Let’s way for the results with patience, calm and prepare to recognise the results, whatever they may be,” he said in a phone call broadcast during a press conference held by his campaign team.
“I ask the nation to stay calm, be patient and that nobody despair, that nobody fall into provocations, no violence, and we wait for the results,” Chavez said.
“Let’s prepare for this with maturity, with good faith and the willingness to continue the march of the Bolivarian fatherland,” Chavez said, referring to Venezuela’s independence hero Simon Bolivar.
Some voting centres remained open more than two hours after the official closing time, 6:00pm local time (22:30 GMT), due to the lines, election authorities said.
Chavez, who won 62 per cent of the vote in the 2006 election, held a 10-point lead in the latest opinion poll, but other surveys have put the rivals in a statistical dead heat.
Thousands of Chavez supporters lined the streets to welcome him as he arrived at the school in a Caracas hillside slum where he cast his vote.
“Today is a day of joy, a day of democracy, a day for the fatherland,” Chavez said.
In poor neighborhoods, where Chavez draws his most fervent following, supporters blew bugles and trumpets in a predawn wake-up call.
The Leftist president is hoping to get a third term in office but is facing tough competition from Capriles.
Capriles, 40, a lawyer-turned-politician who has never lost an election, has rallied support by focusing on the day-to-day problems that worry voters most, such as high crime, power blackouts and endemic corruption.
Sporting what he called his “lucky shoes,” the superstitious Capriles struck a conciliatory tone after voting.
“Whatever the people decide today is sacred,” he said to applause from supporters. “To know how to win, you have to know how to lose.”
On the eve of elections, Venezuelans crowded grocery stores and markets to stock up on food and queued to collect the national ID cards they need for voting.
In the capital, Caracas, a day ahead of elections authorities set up a special bureaus to issue the cards – the only valid document to vote in the country with hundreds of people having to wait for hours.
The National Electoral Council (NEC) headquarters in Caracas was also buzzing with activity, while both camps were busy with organising and mobilising volunteers.
Over 300 polling stations will be set up in embassies and consulates around the world for Venezuelan nationals living abroad to cast their vote.
“At most polling stations, lines stretched for blocks,” Al Jazeera’s Chris Arsenault reported from Caracas.
“Geography plays a huge role on voter preferences. In the upper class areas, the vast majority despise Chavez and are backing the opposition. In the slums or barrios, most are backing Chavez. In middle class areas, the vote is more divided.”
Chavez has been leading in most polls ahead of the election, with one survey showing him at a 10 per cent lead in October while others have projected that a neck and neck outcome is likely.
In Cota 905, a poor barrio, all the voters Al Jazeera interviewed said they were backing Chavez. “Chavez has given many benefits to us,” Mireya Cecilia Maestro, a housewife, told Al Jazeera. “The social programmes, the subsidised food markets and all the housing projects help us a lot.”
“I am willing to speak with any Venezuelan, I’m always thinking peace. I hope that you do not doubt that we will recognise the results, regardless of what they are.
– Hugo Chavez
“The changes have been pretty positive,” Antonio Tovar, a Chavez supporter in Cota 905, told Al Jazeera. “The government has helped the people a lot.”
Capriles, 40, has posed the biggest threat to Chavez in his aim to seek third term.
Election observers for Capriles also gathered to plan their logistics ahead of Sunday’s vote, saying they hoped the government would respect the results.
Chavez staged a remarkable comeback after bouncing back from cancer this year and wants a new six-year term to consolidate his self-styled socialist revolution in the OPEC nation.
Victory would allow 58-year-old Chavez to continue a wave of nationalisations and consolidate control over the economy, though a recurrence of his cancer would weaken his leadership and possibly give the opposition another chance.
“Some of the changes in the last 14 years are positive, others are negative, there is no black and white,” Raiza Yellamo, a retired education sector employee voting in a lower middle class area told Al Jazeera. “Before Chavez, education was a benefit not a right. I hope there will be social cohesion and unity after the election. We need an equal society for all.”
“The most important thing is to be free: to have security, and electricity and to stop the corruption,” Adriana Mancera, a businesswoman, told Al Jazeera as she left a polling station in the posh Chacao district. “There is going to be a huge change. Here anything could happen, Chavez has a militia and they are armed. I don’t think he will recognise the results when he loses.”
The result of the election also serves as a cliff-hanger for other left-wing governments in the region, from Cuba to Ecuador, who depend on Chavez’s discounted oil sales and generous financial assistance.