CARACAS  - After almost 14 years in power, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez seeks a new six-year term on Sunday, but he faces his toughest challenge yet from youthful opposition rival Henrique Capriles. The leftist leader retains a loyal following among the country’s poor, who have propelled him to easy victories in past elections, but Capriles has surged in opinion polls after an energetic door-to-door campaign across the country.
While he remains the odds-on favorite, Chavez has urged his supporters not to declare victory too early and to turn out to vote en masse on Sunday. He also charges that the “far right” plans not to recognize his victory. The 58-year-old leader, who was operated twice for cancer and underwent chemotherapy in the past two years, stepped up his campaign this week with giant rallies that climaxed with a massive demonstration in Caracas on Thursday. Speaking under torrential rain, Chavez warned that “the life of the nation is at stake” as he charged that Capriles would close popular social programs that have brought free medical care and subsidized food to humble neighborhoods. Sitting on the world’s biggest proven crude oil deposits, Chavez has used the country’s oil wealth to reduce poverty, child mortality and illiteracy. But he also admitted making mistakes and vowed to “become a better president” if he wins re-election. The constitution was amended in 2009 to allow the president to seek multiple terms in office.