Decision time for Venezuela as Capriles faces down Chavez

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Venezuelans are today voting in what is predicted to be the country's closest presidential election in a decade.

The incumbent, Hugo Chavez, who has been elected to the post three times since 1998, is being challenged by leader of the opposition Henrique Capriles.

Mr Chavez wants to continue his 'Social Revolution' while Mr Capriles has promised to restore economic growth and peace in the now divided country.

For the first time during Mr Chavez's presidency the opposition seems strongly unified. After rallying across the country, Capriles, better known as 'The Skinny’ by his supporters, has achieved a mass support, making of himself the stronger candidate Chavez has ever confront.

Mr Chavez, 58 - who has nationalised key sectors of the economy - was diagnosed with cancer last year but says he has now fully recovered.

At many polling places in Venezuela, voters started lining up hours before polls opened at dawn.

In London, over 2,000 people cast their votes in the Venezuelan Consulate, where the atmosphere was peaceful and energetic. According to the Embassy staff, they have never seen so many people coming to vote.

Warren Street, where The Venezuelan Consulate is located, turned tricolour yellow blue and red as voters invaded the area chanting the national anthem and shouting ‘Venezuela, Venezuela!’. Gonzalo, 26, said: "I feel very enthusiastic today. I await the country to be united and tolerant regardless of individual’s political views."

It is a historic day for Venezuela. Andrea, 41, said: "I want to be part of Venezuela's future, the future of my children and grandchildren. Today's results will define the next 15 years of the country." While waiting to cast their vote in the queues of the five voting tables available, many voters mentioned that their decision of going back to their native country depends on the outcome of the elections. Gloria, 42: "My dream is to come back to the country with my family and all the knowledge I have acquired in Europe." Ana, 39, said: "I have hopes that my country could finally have the chance to grow and develop."

If Chavez wins a new six-year term, he gets a free hand to push for an even bigger state role in the economy, further limit dissent and continue to befriend rivals of the United States. 

If Capriles wins, a radical foreign policy shift can be expected along with a loosening of state economic controls and an increase in private investment. A tense transition would likely follow until the January inauguration because Chavez's political machine thoroughly controls the wheels of government.

Venezuelans are anxious as what might happen if the disputes erupt over the election's outcome. There is a fear that a close election might not be respected and that blood could be shed.

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