Chavez fights for political life at the polls

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President Hugo Chavez, a self-styled modern Latin American revolutionary whose left-wing rule has polarised society in oil-rich Venezuela, fights for his political life today in the world's first referendum on recalling an elected head of state.

Both sides eagerly expected victory ahead of today's vote, refusing to believe that the other side could win if the referendum were clean. The result is expected by 6pm today but there are fears that tensions may spark violence.

Divided Venezuelan society is desperate for the referendum to end two years of turmoil that have cost dozens of lives and a social schism bordering on class warfare.

Chavez was elected in 1998 and again in 2000 on a pledge to end the rampant corruption of the old guard that had prevented the country's oil wealth from improving the lives of millions mired in poverty. Chavez has funnelled record oil revenues into grass roots social programmes for the poor, including literacy programmes, free medical care in shanty towns and modernised railways.

The opposition to Chavez ­ a broad coalition of political parties, military dissidents and civic organisations ­ fears Chavez will destroy the Venezuelan economy, the world's fifth largest oil exporter, by pursuing Cuban-style communism. They fear his petrol-fuelled populism is unproductive, and when oil prices go down the country will come unstuck.

"People need jobs, not charity. He only cares about the revolutionary process, he doesn't care about increasing wealth. I am ready to fight if Chavez wins. I would rather die than be a slave to the state, and for my children to lose their liberty," said Guillermo del Rio, 67, a surgeon from Acarigua.

Chavez has the hard core support of 20 per cent who see him a saviour of the poor can see no future without him.

"We needed a revolution because everything was rotten in this country, with so much corruption. That must never come back. Chavez is the first president of the poor. If Chavez goes, Venezuela is dead, annihilated," said Anthony Car, 40, a street trader. Yet the opposition says that people have been blinded by populist palliatives to the reality that since 1998 unemployment has risen from 12 per cent to more than 17 per cent.

There is also concern as to how the military, previously loyal to Chavez, will react if the opposition wins and angry Chavez supporters take to the streets.

The government has said that Venezuela will guarantee exports and prevent unrest, no matter who wins the referendum. But the perceived risk of the referendum disrupting Venezuela's oil supply, for which the US relies for 15 per cent of its crude imports, contributed to record prices last week in markets already unnerved by events in Iraq and Russia.

"If Chavez wins the elections cleanly the country will respect the decision of the majority," says Jose Toro Hardy, 60 an economist and broadcaster sympathetic to the opposition. "But if he tries any trickery it will be difficult for the country to recover its calm."