BBC: Venezuela Election Preview

It is Venezuela’s most tightly contested presidential election in more than a decade.

On 7 October, voters will decide whether to give President Hugo Chavez another six years in office or opt for his main challenger, Henrique Capriles, who represents a coalition of opposition parties.

“I hope President Chavez wins the election because if not, they’ll probably take this away and we’ll all suffer,” says Raiza Urbina, a Chavez supporter and community leader, as she gestures to a subsidised market near her home in Caracas.

The market sells basic items, such as tinned food, meat, eggs and cheese, at knock-down prices.

It is just one example of the many social programmes President Chavez has introduced since he first came to power in 1999.

Millions of homes

Styling himself as a champion of the poor, President Chavez has worked on increasing access to healthcare, education and housing for many of Venezuela’s disadvantaged.

President Chavez campaigning in his home town of Sabaneta.

“I’m a breast cancer sufferer. Before, I would never have been able to go to a clinic because I can’t afford to pay. Now, the state gives me treatment and medicine and I’m alive,” says Ms Urbina.

In the run-up to the election, President Chavez has stepped up public spending, unveiling hundreds of new buses and giving away free housing.

The government says 150,000 homes were built in 2011, with a total of three million to be completed by 2018.

President Chavez says a further six years would allow him to deepen his “Bolivarian revolution” and increase socialism in Venezuela.

Addressing thousands in his rural hometown of Sabaneta on 1 October, Mr Chavez promised development.

“Sabaneta will become the epicentre of a great project, within the main agricultural and industrial plan for 2012-19,” he said.

But another six years of a Chavez government is a worrying prospect for some Venezuelans.

Cheap oil

Business owners says some of the president’s policies have made life extremely difficult for them.

Expropriations of land and businesses have sown seeds of uncertainty in the minds of investors.

Currency controls, introduced to stem capital flight, have made importing and exporting extremely difficult.

Tough labour laws that have reduced working hours and banned outsourcing have strengthened workers’ rights but also caused headaches for entrepreneurs.

Regulo Moreno, whose company makes office furniture, is just about ready to give up on Venezuela.

“I have explored Colombia,” he says. “We started the same business in Colombia a year-and-a-half ago and now we feel that the company can grow faster there then here.”

It is not only Venezuelan residents who will be watching this election closely.

Under President Chavez’s Petrocaribe scheme, several countries, including Cuba and Nicaragua, benefit from access to cheap Venezuelan oil at preferential rates.

He has strong ties to Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, cheering on Argentina in its sovereignty dispute with Britain over the Malvinas or Falkland Islands.

Beyond Latin America, President Chavez has shown support for the Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, calling him a “humanist” and a “brother”.

Venezuela has provided shipments of diesel to the Assad government when other countries have imposed embargoes.

Venezuela under President Chavez has been a vocal member of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec), helping to make sure oil prices stay high.

But while many have an interest in what happens in Venezuela, it will be the people here who will decide.

This is the closest presidential race Mr Chavez has faced since he first won an election, in 1998.

Challenger Henrique Capriles, a young lawyer turned career politician, has succeeded in unifying a once-fractured opposition, winning a primary election in February.

Henrique Capriles on the campaign trail

Since then he has criss-crossed the country trying to galvanise support among the wider electorate for his presidential bid.

His promises to maintain social programmes while also encouraging private enterprise appear to have struck a chord with some voters.

“My mission is to get Venezuelans to agree so we can get this country moving forward,” he told the BBC earlier in his campaign.

Pressing problems

Given what is at stake, there are concerns that violence could erupt between rival supporters.

Three Capriles supporters were shot dead last month as they tried to take part in a rally in President Chavez’s home state of Barinas.

Awash with guns, Venezuela has one of the highest murder rates in the region – 48 per 100,000 inhabitants, according to interior ministry figures from 2011.

Kidnappings and robberies are common in urban areas.

Whoever wins on Sunday will have to tackle crime as well as high inflation and an economy almost totally dependent on the oil industry.

President Chavez has said he believes he has beaten the cancer that took him out of the media spotlight for several weeks in 2011 and again earlier this year.

But with the exact nature of his illness still unclear, questions are likely to remain about his health if he wins.

If Mr Capriles wins, he will have to govern alongside a National Assembly dominated by Chavez allies.

For either man, winning the election may well be the first challenge of many.