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Venezuelans stock for election

Venezuelans packed supermarkets on Friday to stock up on food and other essentials in case of trouble around today’s presidential vote, which was shaping up as the biggest electoral challenge of Hugo Chavez’s 14-year rule.

By Helen Murphy and Andrew Cawthorne
Energetic young state governor Henrique Capriles has gained momentum in the closing days of the campaign and he seemed to have the opposition’s best chance of unseating Chavez since the socialist president came to power in 1999.

Many among the South American oil exporting nation’s 29 million people are fretting that tight results could bring accusations of fraud and protests in an already highly polarised society awash with illegal arms.

“I have to think about my family, there could be violence, anything is possible in this country,” said housewife Dayana Alvarez (38) among scores of shoppers buying cooking oil, powdered milk, candles and flour in a teeming Caracas supermarket.

Some stores and pharmacies have run short of staples like pasta, coffee, toilet paper, rice and milk.

“I’ve been buying a little every day. You have to be prepared. Who knows what is going to happen?” Maria Eugenia Maduro, a 38-year-old administrator at a computer company, said at another store in a wealthy district where Capriles’ support is strong and nervousness over potential trouble is high.

In the run-up to the election, three opposition activists were shot dead at a rally, and there were isolated outbreaks of gunfire and rock-throwing at some events. But there was none of the sustained violence some had feared the campaign could bring.

Both sides have voiced confidence in the electronic ballot system, will be sending witnesses to the 13 700 voting centres, and have said they will accept the election board’s ruling.

“We have been and will continue to be respectful of the established processes,” Capriles’ campaign coordinator, Leopoldo Lopez, said on Friday. “We call for peace and tranquillity”.

Yet with a tight result likely, the potential for disputes grew. Supporters of either candidate may be reluctant to accept defeat.

No formal international monitors are allowed, though the UNASUR group of South American nations and US-based Carter Centre will have teams in Venezuela watching.

Chavez (58) has repeatedly said the opposition is preparing violence to swing the result, while his most strident critics say he may balk at handing over power should he lose. — Reuters

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