Hugo Chavez finally meets his match

He has survived cancer and a coup attempt in 14 years as Venezuela's President, but 'el Comandante' may be about to lose power in Sunday's vote

Judging by the heated rhetoric, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez could not be taking the challenge from opposition candidate Henrique Capriles more seriously. Even by his own strident standards, the president's recent warning to Venezuela's moneyed classes to vote for him or face "civil war" was inflammatory.

Denying he was intimidating opposition voters, "el Comandante" claimed Mr Capriles (a telegenic, youthful, centrist former state governor) secretly plans to dismantle welfare programmes for the poor, a move Mr Chávez said would trigger a dangerous backlash.

"Who could think that the people would remain with their arms crossed if they take away their acquired rights?" the president asked. "It's not that I am threatening a civil war. That package [of Mr Caprile's policies], even if I implemented it, the country would tremble."

Yet the real reason for Mr Chávez's outburst may be in the highly effective campaign that Mr Capriles, the first candidate backed by a unified opposition ever to take on the president, has been running.

Bypassing the state media, whose coverage heavily favours the president, Mr Capriles, 40, has been crisscrossing Venezuela tirelessly since his nomination in February as the presidential candidate for Democratic Unity, an umbrella group that now includes all of the country's significant opposition parties, left and right.

And rather than shy away from the grittiest neighbourhoods that typically are overwhelmingly pro-Chávez, Mr Capriles, wearing jeans, a T-shirt and baseball cap, has made a beeline to them, shaking as many hands and giving as many impromptu stump speeches on street corners as possible.

He has also stayed on-message with an almost iron discipline, promising Venezuelans that he will clean up the Augean stables of Venezuela's bloated bureaucracy. And rather than terminate them, Mr Capriles promises to finally bring the missing ingredient of efficiency to the "missions", Mr Chávez's vaunted social programs for the needy.

"What has socialism done for you?" he regularly asks the crowds. "How many schools has it built? How are the hospitals? Don't you think the time has come to progress?"

Even after three of his local organizers were shot and killed at an opposition rally last weekend, apparently by Chávez supporters, an unruffled Mr Capriles kept his focus, telling the meeting: "We will defeat violence in Venezuela."

Still recovering from the pelvic cancer that has seen him operated on three times in Cuba in the last 12 months, the normally dynamic Mr Chávez has been forced to campaign at a slower pace than usual, relying heavily on government-run TV to get his message to voters.

Hugely popular among Venezuela's downtrodden masses, Mr Chávez, 58, remains the favourite to win. Targeting the neediest with free clinics, adult literacy programs, subsidized housing and cash hand-outs for pensioners and single mothers, the missions have cemented his place in the hearts of many of the country's underclass, as have his populist verbal assaults on the traditional elite.

Yet there is genuine uncertainty regarding the election's outcome. Of the country's 10 polling companies, six have been giving the president a huge lead of 15 or more points over Mr Capriles. But the other four have shown the pair in a statistical dead heat. Most have also shown the challenger gaining ground in recent weeks.

Meanwhile, Mr Capriles' upbeat tone, concentrating on how he will improve Venezuela rather than criticizing Mr Chávez, appears to be resonating with those voters tired of the president's bombastic style and grandiose rhetoric of a "Bolivarian" revolution sweeping Latin America.

The challenger has also publicly promised to diversify Venezuela's economy away from its dependence on oil and gas exports, avoid the kind of personality cult associated with Mr Chávez, and restore the independence of the judiciary.

He said: "Chávez talks of the right, defining himself as the left. But what left? Chávez and his model are full of profound contradictions, of absolutely fascist actions such as when people are obliged to join a political party in order to gain access to [state] benefits."

Much is at stake for Venezuela, whose economy is in disarray following Mr Chávez's nationalizations of key industries. Frustrated shoppers often queue for hours for basic necessities at supermarket chains expropriated by the government. The series of crises wracking the nation include the world's second highest inflation rate and, according to UN figures released last year, fifth highest murder rate – almost three times that of Mexico.

There are also huge geopolitical implications. Mr Chávez claims Venezuela's oil reserves as the largest in the world – Saudi Arabia disputes the title – allowing the president to send subsidized oil to Cuba and even striking a deal with London mayor Ken Livingstone in 2007 to provide cheap fuel for London's buses.

But Mr Capriles has promised to focus Venezuela's petro-dollars on modernization at home, while also redrawing some of the country's biggest oil deals with Chinese and Russian firms, and distancing Caracas from Iran, whose president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has forged a high-profile political friendship with Mr Chávez.

Although the president is widely given the credit for having reduced poverty after decades of government neglect, he has been regularly criticized for failing to prevent human rights abuses and accused of a bullying, intolerant style that undermines Venezuelan democracy.

In July, Human Rights Watch published a report, "Tightening the Grip: Concentration and Abuse of Power in Chávez's Venezuela", that alleged numerous authoritarian excesses, including packing the supreme court to evade legal challenges.

"For years, President Chávez and his followers have been building a system in which the government has free rein to threaten and punish Venezuelans who interfere with their political agenda," said José Miguel Vivanco, Human Rights Watch's Latin America director, when he presented the report. "Today that system is firmly entrenched, and the risks for judges, journalists, and rights defenders are greater than they've ever been under Chávez."

Publicly at least, Mr Chávez has shown disdain for Mr Capriles, who he refers to as "majunche", a resonant piece of local slang that translates as something between "loser" and "lowlife". In a country where admitting to being "rightwing" would be electoral suicide for any politician, the president also repeatedly accuses Mr Capriles of being far more reactionary than he dare acknowledge in public.

Mr Chávez has also steadfastly refused to debate with the former governor. In one typically contemptuous comment, Mr Chávez responded to journalists' questions about the issue: "A debate with who? With no one. What's to debate? There is no debate possible."

But he has also left some of the most ferocious attacks on Mr Capriles to his proxies, who greeted news of the former governor's nomination earlier this year with a range of epithets that ran the gamut from "Zionist" to "Nazi", and threw in "gay" for good measure.

Mr Capriles, a professed Catholic whose Jewish great-grandparents died in the Treblinka concentration camp, responded with a press conference in which he talked about watching his grandmother cry as she recalled her parents' fate at the hands of the Nazis. "I think the country deserves a higher debate," he noted.

As Venezuelans head to the polls on Sunday in their most bitterly fought election in living memory, that sentiment is likely to be tested more than ever. And with mutual suspicion and fear defining relations between the two candidates' supporters, the tensions are unlikely to end once the final vote has been counted.

Henrique Capriles

Capriles studied law at university, but has spent almost his entire adult life in politics, working as a local mayor, member of congress and, since 2008, governor of Miranda, the wealthiest of the country's 23 states. Capriles was charged and cleared – twice – with orchestrating violent protests outside the Cuban embassy during the 2002 coup. He has always denied the accusation and claims he was mediating between the ambassador and the mob.

Hugo Chávez

"El Comandante" rocketed to national prominence in 1992 when, as an army major, he led a failed coup against an elected government. He served two years in prison, and began a political campaign. He won the presidency in 1998 and embarked on deep reforms aimed at curbing the power of what he described as a corrupt elite. In 2002, he was held prisoner for 48 hours during a failed coup, apparently launched with the blessing of the George W Bush White House.

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